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Rhys Chatham - A Crimson Grail (For 400 Guitars)

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Artist: Rhys Chatham

Album: A Crimson Grail (For 400 Guitars)

Label: Table of the Elements

Review date: Mar. 27, 2007

Yes, you definitely had to be there. A watery bootleg of a four-piece rock band hardly “captures” the woozy immediacy of a hot nightclub show, and a digital rendering of 400 guitarists playing at Paris’s Sacre Coeur, under the direction of overtone kingpin Rhys Chatham, damned sure isn’t going to come anywhere close to the experience of witnessing such a thing. Even more than with An Angel Moves Too Fast To See, a comparatively modest convergence of a mere one hundred axe doctors, the event was one thing, and the recording is another thing entirely.

As a record, A Crimson Grail is a weathered memento of a peak experience, suspended between the grandeur of its source material and the bittersweetness of its own removal. Maybe it’s the actual music that balances bittersweetness and grandeur. It’s in there somewhere.

Ex-Swans drummer Jonathan Kane rides a high-hat through the second of three movements. Still, Crimson Grail is in line with Chatham’s most threadbare work, more Two Gongs than “Guitar Trio” (or anything else that directly motivated Swans, Glenn Branca, Sonic Youth or any of Chatham’s higher-profile acolytes), and definitely not the metal-qua-metal that he’s taken on the road lately.

The first movement (none of them have specific titles) is a bleak, raga-style buildup to a shimmering, cleansing zenith about 18 minutes in. It’s the most direct escalator ride from confusion into redemption, always Chatham’s main stock in trade. Even as the recording strains to clock the absurd vastness of the performance, it packs a sweeping emotional charge. It’s music that can bring back stirring, conflicted memories through a three-inch wall.

Movement two is a clangy drizzler. The guitarists play like percussionists. Kane gives the piece its hypnotic pulse. It keeps going until it stops.

For the wrap-up, the director either leads his orchestra into a wash of white noise or allows it to go there of its own collective instinct. The further it goes, the more it instills the desire to be, if not everywhere at once, than at least in Paris in October of ’05. One last chord takes it home. The applause fades out slowly and naturally.

By Emerson Dameron

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