As anyone who has ever witnessed him perform with Wilco in concert will surely testify, Nels Cline is an absolute monster guitarist. What Cline adds to Jeff Tweedy's songs — particularly in a live setting — is in many ways the missing piece of the puzzle that finally completed this already formidable band.
But within Wilco, Cline is merely the guitarist — albeit a really great one — who is adding the window dressing to Tweedy's songs. What Cline does outside of Wilco, however, is another matter entirely.
To hear the guy playing on Initiate, Cline's new double-disc set with the Nels Cline Singers, you'd never think in a million years this was even the same guy. Musically, the two groups couldn't be further apart. In fact, some of the stuff on these two discs is so "out there," you'd be forgiven for questioning whether Cline and Wilco even exist in the same universe.
The Nels Cline Singers — Cline on guitar, bassist Devin Hoff and drummer Scott Amendola; none of whom actually sing, by the way — are for lack of a better term an often very noisy trio of experimental, avant-jazz musicians playing some of the most distorted, whacked-out music you've ever heard. I think I've finally figured out what "whack-jazz" actually is. Thanks, Nels.
But you have to have a certain predisposition to this sort of thing in order to "get it." For those who do, though, the music found on Initiate will astonish you to the point of thinking this may be the greatest thing you've ever heard. For those who don't, it'll probably make little sense at all. There really just isn't a lot of middle ground here.
On Initiate, the Nels Cline Singers don't so much perform traditional songs as they do stretch their boundaries by turning them into soundscapes. Usually beginning with a simple idea or a series of notes, the three musicians expand these sounds into a myriad of different directions ranging from traditional jazz to quiet ambiance to all-out cacophonous noise. It is when they engage in the latter on this album that I found myself most mesmerized.
Which is probably why I keep coming back to disc two of this set, which is a live recording from Cafe Du Nord in San Francisco. Kicking things off with "Forge," a seven-minute wall of sound that builds from a drum-and-bass-driven assault into an all-out frenzy of distortion and feedback courtesy of Cline, things don't let up a bit from there.
By the time of the third track, "Raze" — which is another fabulous eight-minutes of glorious, metallic noise — Cline takes it to a whole other level with high-pitched harmonic arpeggios that build to a powerful, throbbing crescendo of heavy metal, acid jazz…well, something or another.
Things quiet down some for a cover of Carla Bley's "And Now The Queen" and take a turn towards the Funkadelicious for Joe Zawinul's "Boggie Woggie Waltz." The amps get turned back up to eleven for "Thurston County," Cline's tribute to Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore. Anyway, that's just the live disc.
For the studio disc, Cline and company hop right back on the funk train for "Floored," with bassist Devin Hoff in particular getting a nice workout on a track somewhat reminiscent of fusion-era Miles Davis. As for Cline, the guitarist is once again in full screech mode here, moving from those crazy harmonic arpeggios to grating metal played at blinding speed.
On "Divining," Cline turns acoustic, providing lovely accompaniment to an ethereal, wordless vocal. Never one to stay quiet for too long, though, Cline gradually picks up steam as the song progresses, moving from a borderline flamenco flavor into slightly more dissonant sounds by its end. As noisy as much of Initiate is (particularly on the live disc) the guitar and the vocal here blend together beautifully.
"You Noticed" follows this nicely with the sort of quiet, more-refined sounding interlude for small trio that wouldn't be out of place on an old seventies ECM jazz recording. On "Grow Closer," Cline moves with ease from raga-esque guitar scaling into a nice little bit of bass plucking from Hoff that summons up some of the spirit of the late, great Jaco Pastorius.
On "King Queen," the Cline Singers are joined by organist David Witham for a bit of prog-psychedelia by way of Santana. The busy percussive vibe here is contagious, and Cline turns in one of his best solos of the entire set. Here, the eerie psychedelic organ seems to bring out the best in him. It's a direction I wouldn't mind seeing him explore more often. For me, this track alone is worth the price tag of the collection.
The Nels Cline Singers aren't for everybody, and fans of Cline's work with Wilco should be particularly forewarned this is music that exists in another universe entirely. But for those who "get it," Initiate may just possibly be the best slice of dissonant avant-new age whack-jazz noise metal you'll ever hear. Particularly on that live side.