1. Too Much Light (Ionesco’s Theme) (3:48)
2. The Old Woods (5:46)
3. If Two See A Unicorn (1:58)
4. What A Night (4:02)
5. The Conservatives (1:50)
6. Winter (3:22)
7. I Could Eat You Up (3:37)
8. Wordswords (5:40)
9. Autumn (3:19)
10. Mitch (2:57)
11. A Garland Of Miniatures (2:40)
12. Nightfall (4:31)
Dave Willey – accordion, bass, drums, keyboards, percussion, guitar, mailing tubes, piano, bells, zither, whistling, electric guitar, folk guitar, organ, guitarrón, harmonium; vocals (10)
Mike Johnson – guitar, electric guitar (4, 5, 7, 8, 12)
Deborah Perry – vocals (all tracks but 9, 10)
Elaine di Falco – vocals (1, 6, 9), piano (8, 9)
Hugh Hopper – bass, loops (2, 4, 12)
Farrell Lowe – guitar (2)
Wally Scharold – vocals (5)
James Hoskins – cello (6)
Emily Bowman – viola (6)
Mark Harris – clarinet (6)
Bruce Orr – bassoon (6)
Dave Kerman – drums (7)
Hamster Theatre – vocals for loops (12)
Known as a member of avant-rock outfits Hamster Theatre and Thinking Plague (and, more recently, 3 Mice), Colorado-based multi-instrumentalist and composer Dave Willey is someone whose whole career as a musician hinges on an eclectic and broad-minded outlook, informed by the sophistication of Europe’s variegated traditions as much as by the rugged nature of the American West. Even his preferred instrument, the accordion, is an icon of Old-World folk music (with which Willey became acquainted during his frequent visits to Europe), whose headily nostalgic flavour blends seamlessly with the austerely challenging compositions of Thinking Plague, or underpins the quirky, engaging nature of Hamster Theatre’s sound.
Released on AltrOck Productions almost 20 years after Willey’s recording debut, 1993’s Songs from the Hamster Theatre, Willey’s second solo album, Immeasurable Currents, is a true labour of love, which, in the words of the artist himself, took him “a million years” to complete. In a moving, heartfelt homage to his father, the late Dale Willey, the album is based on the poems written by Willey Sr. and collected in The Tin Box and Other Poems (2001). The album also marks the last recording appearance of legendary bassist Hugh Hopper before his untimely passing in 2009. Besides Hopper, the friends assisting him in this venture include his Hamster Theatre/Thinking Plague cohorts Mike Johnson and Mark Harris, drummer Dave Kerman, miRthkon guitarist Wally Scharold, and an extraordinary pair of vocalists – current and former Thinking Plague singers Elaine diFalco and Deborah Perry. Mostly recorded at Willey’s Colorado home, the album was then mixed and mastered by renowned sound engineer Udi Koomran in Tel Aviv – a truly international, continent-spanning effort.
The first time I heard Immeasurable Currents, a comparison immediately sprang to my mind with another emotionally charged album, released almost 40 years ago – Robert Wyatt’s milestone Rock Bottom. The presence of the late Hopper with his signature fuzz bass adds to the sheer poignancy of the album, though – unlike some fellow reviewers – I would not apply the word “sad” to the music. Upbeat moments are scattered throughout the album, and crop up almost unexpectedly, creating a charming contrast of light and shade with the more sober, even somber passages. While Immeasurable Currents is bound to make the listener pause and think rather than get up and dance, its musical and lyrical content is a far cry from the contrived doom and gloom of a lot of progressive metal, or the navel-gazing typical of “alt. prog”.
Following an increasingly (and thankfully) popular trend for shorter albums, Immeasurable Currents runs at a mere 43 minutes, consisting of 12 vignettes (mostly penned by Willey, with some noteworthy contributions from his guests) that, in spite of their short duration and deceptively simple appearance, span a wide range of moods and musical textures. The minimalistic yet exquisite instrumental accompaniment highlights the beauty and power of the words without overwhelming them with layers upon layers of sound; while the magnificent vocal performances bring the lyrics’ vivid imagery to life – never concealing its occasionally disturbing nature, but also throwing its ultimately life-affirming quality and keen observation of nature’s phenomena into sharp relief.
Opener “Too Much Light” spotlights the breathtaking beauty of Perry and diFalco’s intertwining voices – the former higher-pitched, almost child-like, the latter deep and smooth, complementing each other perfectly, in stark contrast with the cloyingly sweet stereotype of the female prog vocalist. The nostalgia-infused sound of the accordion lends a smoky, Old-World feel to the piece, and to the following “The Old Woods”, somewhat similar in mood. In a dance-like movement, the songs often temper their initial briskness by noticeably slowing down in the second half – such being the case of the troubling “I Could Eat You Up”, which hints at incest while expanding on the well-known fairy tale of Haensel and Gretel; Dave Kerman’s supercharged drumming, coupled with Willey’s frantic accordion, add to the claustrophobic feel of the piece. The subtle but incisive political criticism of “The Conservatives” is set to surprisingly upbeat music, featuring one of the album’s rare guitar solos; while the solemn, chamber-like “Winter” and the understated piano- and accordion-led ballad “Autumn” render the poignancy of the two “darker” seasons of the year in flawless sonic terms.
With its striking, often harsh images intensified by Perry’s stunningly expressive vocals, “Wordswords” is one of the highlights of the album, a skewed Astor Piazzolla tango that gradually builds up to a haunting ending, spiced by a hint of dissonance that anchors it to Thinking Plague’s work. “Mitch” showcases Willey’s idiosyncratic but effective voice in a piece that commands comparisons to the likes of Tom Waits; while “What a Night” oozes a mix of intensity and tenderness, its superbly atmospheric coda a perfect foil to the words. The album is then wrapped up by the arresting “Nightfall”, where Perry’s vocal performance reproduces the peculiar arrangement of the written word, almost suspended in a rarefied backdrop of guitar and bass loops.
An album of subtle, multilayered beauty, Immeasurable Currents seems to embody the very definition of “progressive but not prog” (if by “prog” we mean the myriad acts that are firmly and hopelessly stuck in the Seventies). Its deeply personal nature, coupled with musical textures ranging from mesmerizingly sparse to engagingly upbeat, will appeal to fans of such diverse artists as David Sylvian or Kate Bush, as well as the RIO/Avant brigade. Indeed, the open-minded, forward-thinking music lover will find much to appreciate in this elegant yet humble tribute to a beloved father’s artistic and human vision, set to music that constantly surprises and delights, and full of intriguing reflections on nature and the human condition.