Castle Face Records, 2016
Review by Kent Manthie
If you want to hear what could possibly be the best record that will be released this year (and I know it’s only March), take a listen to the new, eponymous album by New York-based Sunwatchers. This thing’s heavy. A true thing of beauty, seven instrumentals which take you outside of time and let’s you forget where we are, what we’re doing, a dreamworld of bright colors, vivid soundscapes and wide-open vistas for your mind’s eye. From the first notes of the opening cut, “Herd of Creeps”, on through “Eusebius”, “Ape Phases” and “Moonchanges”, this album is truly awe-inspiring. It is rather anachronistic, in a literal, nonjudgmental sort of descriptive way, in that, this stuff does not sound like it just came out, rather, it has the ring of some of the jaw-dropping, endless juggernauts of greats like The Soft Machine, 69-71 era King Crimson, even a hint of Traffic, plus, no doubt, there’s some free-jazz mixed in with the influences that combine here, to make an album that is, at the same time, brand new, looking toward the future and one that harkens back to the days of all-night jams, broadening consciousnesses, and really serious experimentation.
The core of Sunwatchers is made up of Jim McHugh, on guitar, Peter Kerlin, bass, Jeff Tobias, alto sax and Jason Robira on drums. They have some friends sitting in with them as well, including two extra guitars: Ben Greenberg and Dave Harrington, who also plays some synthesizer. Also showing up are Cory Bracken, playing the vibes and some “percussion”, Dave Kadden on keyboards and Jonah Rapino on the fiddle. What really grabs a hold of the listener from this audacious, inspired album are the impressive, nimble guitar work of McHugh as well as Jeff Tobias’s great alto sax, grooving right there, alongside and at times above, others, just in the background, but still there. They really, together, stir up something that I’ve not heard in anything new in the past – well, I can’t even think of anything I’ve reviewed in the past that had this kind of energy, skill and unabashed, raw spirit. Sunwatchers are like opening up a time capsule from circa 1970 and finding some shimmering, hypnotic valuables, like untarnished gems that seem to pulsate in the light.
This is, I know I’ve mentioned this before, about certain other albums, but, it’s true, an album you just can’t sample bits and pieces of, one song here, one song there, as if it were your average pop album with singles, accessible “radio-friendly” fare to which you gravitate while politely ignoring the more rigorous, longer and (for some) complicated, many sounds coming at you at once, but in a smoothly arranged style. Yes Sunwatchers, must be listened to all in one sitting. With each tune going right into the next, in a seamless fashion where you sometimes don’t even realize there’s been a song change until you notice the numbers have changed on your player – on whatever you may be listening (well, except vinyl, of course, for which you have to look closely, at the spinning disc to see where the stylus is and on which groove it’s at.
We start off with the big bang attack of “Herd of Creeps”, which is a breathtaking, loud, beautiful herald of what’s to come. After “Herd”, the album slips into “For Sonny”, then “White Woman” and before you know it, you’re into “Eusebius”, which all make up a cosmological dream suite which doesn’t seem to relent, but just keeps up the attack, so to speak (an “attack” that hurts so damn good!). After this, comes the 8 ½ minute “Ape Phases”, on which some killer guitar licks are coming at you from all sides. Not just McHugh with his tight, titillating, quicksilver-fret-work guitar chops, but Ben and Dave joining in, to add fuel to this white-hot fire, flames a-flickering, lapping up all the empty spaces, filling them with a bright, multi-hued expression. The guitars just keep it up – six minutes in and you’re still being mesmerized by both the swirling guitars as well as Tobias’s serpentine sax which is keeping up with the guitars, mixing in perfectly, the two sounds: guitar and sax, intertwine and complement each other wonderfully. This keeps up for another two ½ minutes, when it finally comes to a close.
The next song, “Moroner” has essences of the old blues traditional, “Cat’s Squirrel”, a lively, loosened up improv that starts with a theme, then goes into a mid-section that, depending on who’s playing it, can go many ways. It was, most famously, done back in the ’60s by Cream and also, Jethro Tull, who did a version of it on their debut, This Was. The finale, “Moonchanges” has more crafty guitar work, you can hear some swooshing synthesizers in the background, and the alto sax is really laying it down.
All over this album, it’s the guitar and the saxophone which, together, make some of the best, most fluid, melting dreamscapes and just out-of-this-world musicianship that I’ve heard in a capacity as “brand new” material. I have to go back to something like Third by The Soft Machine, for one example, to be able to compare it to something. It’s not that there’s nothing from the past 20 years or so that I’ve found intensely stimulating as well as iconoclastic, filled with intense music that will be remembered for a long, long time, if not forever; there are some outstanding albums by some very talented artists and bands which have been steadily coming out, but as for this stunning hallmark of an album, I just can’t think of anything that has this sort of intensity, virtuosity, limitless reach in scope from the last, oh, forty years! I would also love to see Sunwatchers play live. I can see that one of their live gigs would be some sort of near-religious experience.
If you’d like to get more information on Sunwatchers or find out how to get yourself a copy of this album, check out: https://sunwatchers.bandcamp.com/music, where you can also get to some of their previous work or go to the Castle Face website’s Sunwatchers page: http://www.castlefacerecords.com/products/sunwatchers-sunwatchers. -KM