In addition to providing sound and vision for alt-rock legends Wilco over the past decade, guitarist Nels Cline seems to enjoy the occasional walk on the musical wild side while rolling out projects with Charlie Haden, Julius Hemphill and Tim Berne, an adventurous tour with Medeski Martin & Wood, and, in early 2014, his fifth solo album and Mack Avenue Records debut, “Macroscope” by The Nels Cline Singers.
“Macroscope” characteristically includes only marginal vocals (Cline’s vocal turns on ‘Respira’ and ‘Macroscopic’) but it does capture free-wheeling instrumental wildlife by Cline’s talented “Singers” trio with Scott Amendola (Charlie Hunter, T.J. Kirk) on drums, percussion, electronic treatments/loops and mbira, plus new bassist Trevor Dunn, whose previous haunts included genre-mashers The Melvins and Mr. Bungle. “Trevor not only is a great jazz player, but he has no fear of pop, no fear of black metal, no fear of rocking out,” Cline enthuses. “On his first gig with us, he destroyed like he’d been playing in the band for years.”
“The title ‘Macroscope’ speaks to the idea of the mutt within,” Cline continues. “The fact that I’m not in any one genre and never have been. I was a rock and roll kid, but after hearing Coltrane and Miles and Weather Report, then Indian music and Nigerian pop and that sort of thing, there was no turning back. From that point on, the idea of purism just was not possible.”
More pieces than songs (and often more sound than music), Cline’s experimental “Macroscope” presents the sound of “no turning back.” In the opening ‘Companion Piece,’ Cline’s guitar stacks up notes to create layers of melodic ripples and hooks, then shrieks out bloody Frippertronics and other Hendrixian maelstroms through an almost painful extended crescendo. The more reflective groove ‘Red Before Orange’ seems to paint a sunrise portrait that grows in beauty, intensity and brilliance as it rises, then gently drifts away on the mellow breeze of Wes Montgomery guitar chords.
‘Climb Down’ stomps hard on its percussive reggae beat while Cline’s guitar swaps spooky messages with Zeena Parkins’ electric harp. It also sets off the closing trilogy that defies any/all musical notation or description: “Hairy Mother” seems to honor Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention, a hallucinogenic freakout vibe that begins in the preceding “Seven Zed Heaven,” continues to rumble through the concluding “Sascha’s Book of Frogs,” and ends with a fierce electronic blues ride that sounds like Zappa’s guitar devouring and then spitting out The Allman Brothers. These three tunes seems to go in every direction at once, and yet somehow float in statis to go nowhere at all.
“I would like us to arrive at a point that has no boundaries, that’s totally amorphous,” Cline suggests. “It’s like sunshine or mist – it’s everywhere and nowhere.” If that’s true, then ‘Macroscope’ is both Cline’s journey and his destination.