It occurred to me the other day that there was an incredible wave of great, experimentally minded solo guitarists several years back (Area C, Black Eagle Child, Talvihorros) that has either gone completely silent or moved into very different territory and that no one has quite risen up to replace them. Thankfully, however, the wildly prolific Justin Wright has not gone anywhere and continues to be a tireless torchbearer, both through his Sonic Meditations label and his own Expo Seventy project. Given the sheer volume of Expo Seventy releases, I tend to only check in on the major ones and this one fits the bill: recorded as part of a three-week art event in Kansas City (America: Here and Now), Wright was able to assemble a like-minded quartet featuring two drummers to back his slow-burning psych-rock pyrotechnics. At its best, the results are surprisingly accessible and anthemic, like a time-stretched and deconstructed Black Sabbath jam experienced through a heady fog of drugs.
These sessions were originally intended as part of a larger and more ambitious project, as Kansas City musician Ashley Miller hoped to record multiple bands for a planned compilation. Unfortunately, the necessary funding for that endeavor did not materialize, but Expo Seventy managed to record before it dissolved. Aside from Wright and Expo Seventy bassist Aaron Osborne, the line-up for this album is expanded with a couple of recurring Sonic Meditations artists from Sounding the Deep and Shroud of Winter (David Williams and Mike Vera). Interestingly, I would have expected Wright to immediately exploit the vibrant polyrhythmic possibilities of a two-drummer band, but the first half of the album goes in a considerably more restrained (but no less effective) direction. There is admittedly a bit more cymbal and tom activity than a lone drummer could deliver, but the rhythm section primarily just focuses on providing a slow, heavy, and viscerally deep groove to ground Wright’s smoldering, drone-damaged shredding. Eventually, the drums in "First Movement" snowball into something a bit more rolling and propulsive, but Williams and Vera generally just hang back in the pocket to make room for Wright’s blurred and lysergic strain of rock guitar heroics. The drums do get a bit wilder in the more drone-based "Second Movement" though, gradually building into a roiling eruption of tribal toms and splashes of cymbals. At one point, the percussion even reaches an apocalyptic and punky crescendo, but it quickly simmers back down into a throbbing avant-blues pulse.
While I am definitely drawn to well-done guitar drone like the proverbial doomed moth, it is the more conventionally "rock" piece ("First Movement") that strikes me as most essential here. There are obviously plenty of great psych-rock and stoner-metal bands out there, but I have not heard any that sound quite like prime Expo Seventy. Whereas other bands are sludgy, indulgent, wildly explosive, or prone to improv-heavy freak-outs, "First Movement" embodies trance-like repetition, simplicity, and simmering restraint. All of that is appealing enough on its own, but Wright also has a real talent for anthemic riffage, casually tossing off bitchin' hooks, moaning string-bends, and dual-guitar harmonies in a haze of delay and just letting them dissipate as he coolly moves onto his next idea. Of course, Wright gets a hell of lot of help from the rest of the band, as his layered haze of druggy riffs would not be nearly as compelling without the density and momentum of the underlying groove. While it is probably just as good, "Second Movement" is considerably less distinctive as an artistic vision, as Wright initially focuses his attention on a simple, gently throbbing synth drone. It is damn hard to sound unique as a minimalist armed with a synthesizer. If the piece continued exclusively in that vein, it would be little more than a competent retro/kosmiche pastiche, but it ultimately becomes a showcase for some wild dual-drummer pyrotechnics. Thankfully, Wright does not completely fade into the background, as he colors the percussion explosion with some chirping synth flutters and some nicely roiling and groaning guitar noise. While it does not quite transcend feeling like a purely improvised jam session, the drumming is at least explosive enough to make it a compelling one. Also, it may all just be an amusingly extended introduction to the throbbing and bluesy coda. It is very hard to guess what was planned and what was not.
As I listened to America Here & Now Sessions for the first time, several successive thoughts flashed rapidly into my head. The most immediate revelation was that "First Movement" was remarkably great, reminding me that I have been lax in my attention to Expo Seventy lately and have probably missed out on some similarly fine work. Then I marveled at how cool and improbable it was that Wright was hard at work churning out experimental drone cassettes in Missouri instead of fronting a band like High on Fire. It is all too easy to take an artist for granted when they have been around for a long time and seemingly have a new release every month. Lastly, I reflected upon how wonderful it would be if Wright could actually keep a two-drummer band together long enough to write, rehearse, and record an absolutely killer studio album. Sadly, I suspect Wright does not quite have a King Crimson-level budget, so there will probably not be any apocalyptic Mainliner-caliber opuses in his future. I am certainly delighted that he got to record this though, as I like this direction quite a lot.