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Arbouretum - The Gathering

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Artist: Arbouretum

Album: The Gathering

Label: Thrill Jockey

Review date: Feb. 22, 2011

Though crushingly heavy and rooted as always in the guitar pyrotechnics of Hendrix and Crazy Horse, the music on Arbouretum’s fourth album feels as if it’s floating just inches off the ground. The ponderous thrashings of blues guitar, the ritually paced meditations on time and death and spirituality have an aura of disembodied-ness, of flickering shades of alternate realities. It’s as if playing loud, heavily distorted guitar music is not an end in itself, but some sort of gateway to other states of consciousness.

Arbouretum’s Dave Heumann is said to have drawn heavily on his readings from Carl Jung’s The Red Book as he wrote The Gathering. The Red Book, which was not published until many years after Jung’s death, delved into what the psychiatrist believed was a trove of shared imagery stored in a collective unconscious. Jung had been troubled by violent, frightening hallucinations and, fearing that he was losing his mind, began to catalog and analyze them, finally collecting them in an elaborately illustrated manuscript, which came to be known as The Red Book. The process of pinning down and cataloging mental figments seems, at its core, not so different from what musicians do sometimes, when they dredge a melody or set of imagery out of the unconscious.

In any case, Heumann felt an affinity. His opener, “The White Bird,” for instance, draws imagery directly from Jung’s Seven Sermons of the Dead, a precursor to The Red Book, in which Jung began to consider concepts like the collective conscious and archetypes. To Jung, the White Bird was an intermediary between the natural and spiritual worlds. The bird is “a messenger for the Mother,” Jung writes in “Sermon Six,” a rather mystical tract. “He brings knowledge from the distant ones who went before and are perfected. He beareth our word above to the Mother.”

Heumann’s white bird, likewise, seems to be an intermediary, and as such a metaphor for a creative process that does not create so much as recognize order in a chaotic world. “There’s a design within the larger and the smaller,” he sings, to the pounding of drums, the crashing of guitar chords. “The geomatter…sings as would a white bird of mine/Here in the hall of 1000 rooms.”

The lyrics are at once familiar and dreamlike, a surreal amplification of natural images like trees, flooding water, sun and animal life. Even Jimmy Webb’s “Highwayman,” in many ways the most structured and traditional of these tracks, begins in realism and ends in magic. The melody is pure country folk, as plain spoken and unassumingly lovely as an Appalachian murder ballad. The subject matter, too, seems to be of a piece with American tradition, a rueful look back by a flawed character. Yet, as the verses pile up, so do the lives this highwayman has lived, a Western roughneck, a pirate, a dam builder and finally an astronaut. He dies at the end of every verse and yet maintains, “But I am still around.” On the one hand, it’s a breathtakingly simple bit of modernized folk, and on the other, a meditation on transience and persistence, the individual and the collective experience.

The music, too, begins in recognizable Americana forms and turns disquietingly toward the unreal. Heumann’s guitar solos, for instance, often start by echoing the vocal line, as if having sung the verse, he is now compelled to hear it again through the different timbres of an electric guitar. Yet as these explorations go on, they slip increasingly away from the stately structures of verse and chorus. The notes bend and turn back on themselves, tangling in a curlicued proliferation of ideas. What begins as linear progression turns into something like a kudzu’s flowering: lush, profuse and uncivilized. Only a very strong rhythm section — Brian Carey on drums and Corey Allender on bass — keeps these excursions from running amok. Indeed, on the disc’s last and longest cut, “Song of the Nile,” Heumann’s sludgy, oscillating riff repeats and evolves, caroming off a rock-solid beat, spiraling out into space again, and then plummeting back to the main theme. It’s cathartic, rather than chaotic, because of the strong foundation.

The Gathering is weighted in every way, heavy with distortion-crusted guitars, sluggish tempos and an earnest, perhaps even over-earnest, search for meaning. Yet though this effortful, volume-intensive endeavor, Heumann and his mates seem to strike something archetypical. There’s a familiarity in these tunes that goes beyond something you heard once on the radio, or a line you read in a book, toward a communal imagination where, maybe, white birds really do carry messages back and forth.

By Jennifer Kelly

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Coming Out of the Fog

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