Fred Frith Guitar Quartet

Up Beat
Ambiances Magnetiques / AM063CD

Fred Frith, Mark Stewart, Nick Didkovsky, Rene Lussier / electric guitars

Frith’s compositions are complicated, fiddly, four-part affairs, and very enjoyable for being so. The opener threatens to plunge the listener into some kind of virtuoso-fest we thought people had stopped doing in the 1980s and, lo, they had: virtuosic it is, empty technical fireworks it’s most certainly not. The group’s careful balancing of dissonances keeps the music moving but never lets it get comfortable; a track you’ll be putting on compilation tapes for months, mark my words. Along with their Country and Western pastiches which, far from being as tedious as these things usually are, make interesting music out of a tradition which, for better or for worse, has inescapably moulded the electric guitar tradition.

Didkovsky, on the other hands, writes much more abstract stuff. “Anteus” works by a slow-moving system of drones; the wonderfully-titled “To Laugh Uncleanly at the Nurse” gives the soloists some angular, symmetrical harmonies to rub up against; “Out to Bomb Fresh Kings” is ninety seconds of pure art-metal. Lussier and Stewart contribute just one piece each — respectively, a characteristically startling noise-fest and a bluegrass-tinted hundred-yard-dash which seems to have got nasty-drunk and smudged its mascara, pardoning my mixed metaphors (perhaps the mixed metaphor is a perfect vehicle for the oddly hopeless project of describing music in words — just a thought).

All of the music is, as you might expect, flawlessly played, with precision where it’s called for and gusto always. One of the joys of this disk — and there are plenty — is the inclusion of six group improvisations. Put four guitarists in a room and what usually happens next isn’t worth wasting tape on. These four create really thoughtful, restrained music, keeping pieces short and to-the-point.

Another pleasure is the inclusion of the solo pieces, which help to get a picture of the individual players whose sounds are so subsumed to the group most of the time. These are not to be interpreted as live improvisations; they’re all subjected to studio procedures, overdubbing in particular. Lussier shows off his conventional chops on what sounds like an acoustic steel-string; Frith shreds fretboard with a two-handed-tapping piece which, against the odds, is far from terrible (such things so often are); Stewart, their resident C&W maverick, plays a short tremolo arm study; and Didkovsky (bless him) makes a big, big noise, a kind of Caspar Brotzmann wall of sound which contains a wealth of detail.

All told, this is required listening for bedroom pickers and strummers, and there’s plenty to enjoy even for those who don’t know their Floyd Rose from their Ernie Balls. The music is accessible but not in the least bit tame, virtuosic but not self-satisfied, completely individual but littered with helpfully familiar reference-points. It even has inside artwork which manages to be designy and information-rich at the same time. Those who get a kick out of big, exciting, ambitious guitar albums, put it on your list. Richard Cochrane