Room40 – RM474
Sometimes, this reviewing business is personal. How can it not be? Surely no-one can get into music reviewing without being a mad rabid fan of music above all else. Sure, some may do it for the ligs, but in a non-paying market, first and foremost, it has to be for the love. Yes, I speak personally here. I’m certainly not in it for the money.
I’ve been a fan of Swans since I was in my teens in the early 90s, after being passed a recording of Children of God. It’s an album which will remain with me forever, for so many reasons, not least of all the juxtaposition of thunderous intensity and elegant beauty. I was quick to seek out – and spend my money on – their back catalogue, with Cop proving to be nothing short of pivotal in my musical education.
But as much as I developed a bewildered admiration for Michael Gira both as a lyricist and an artist in the broader sense, I also came, fairly quickly, to appreciate the guitar playing of Norman Westberg. His playing was stark, minimalist, brutal, and seeing him perform live in the current incarnation of the band only cemented my respect. I can’t think of a guitarist less concerned with heroics, who better appreciates the idiom that less is more. He’s nonchalant, cool, peeling off shuddering chords at infinite decibels and grinding out the same riff for what feels like an eternity requires discipline and appreciation of the bigger picture, but more than anything, it has impact.
MRI is not about grinding repetitive chord sequences and squalls of feedback, and as such, reveals another side of Westberg’s guitar playing. If anything, listening to MRI has only furthered my appreciation. Building droning ambience from oscillating feedback and eternally sustaining notes which hum and simmer, MRI is subtle, soft and understated.
In fact, MRI is very much a response and intentional counterpoint to the punishingly high-volume output he’s spent much of his career producing. As the press release explains, MRI is the result of Westberg’s encounters with the heavy medical scanning technology following his recognising diminished hearing. “I started to notice a loss of hearing in my right ear,” Westberg explains, “and decided that it was high time that I had it checked out by a professional. The audiologist confirmed the uneven hearing loss and recommended an MRI. The purpose of the MRI was to make sure that there was not something other than my own aural misadventures causing the uneven loss.” Described in the press blurb as ‘a coda to this experience’, and as ‘a collection of reductive rolling guitar pieces that are embedded strongly in the American Minimalism tradition’, MRI was recorded in 2012, and appears here remastered, post-produced and augmented by a brand new piece, ‘Lost Mine’, recorded in 2015 as an echo of the processes that led to the original recordings.
MRI doesn’t sound like a guitar album, but in many ways, that’s one of its great strengths. It’s testament to Norman Westberg’s unconventional approach to playing the instrument, and reasserts his significance. But, perhaps most importantly, it’s a wonderful and extremely soothing sonic experience.