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Dean McPhee, "Astral Gold"

Astral GoldThis fifth full-length from Yorkshire-based guitar visionary Dean McPhee is actually a compilation of sorts, bringing together the pieces from his out-of-print Cosmos / Ether lathe cut 7" (2022) with a couple of gems from Folklore Tapes compilation appearances. Happily, however, Astral Gold is also rounded out with a pair of new pieces and one of them ("The Sediment of Creation") easily ranks among McPhee's finest work. Given that I was already a huge fan of one of the Folklore Tapes pieces included here, that is more than enough to make this a solid release, but it is also an unexpectedly focused and thematically compelling one given the varied origins and inspirations of these songs. It is quite an aptly named release as well, as the languorously meditative and cosmic mood of these pieces seem like they would be an ideal soundtrack for any astral traveling that one might have on the horizon.

Bass Ritual

The album opens with the two pieces from the Cosmos/Ether single on Reverb Worship, which was originally something of a divergent release for McPhee, as both songs feel more like the extremely understated work of a cosmic-minded '70s psych band than McPhee's usual fare (Manuel Göttsching being the obvious reference point). That said, the two pieces still sound a hell of a lot like Dean McPhee--they just happen to have unusually prominent bass lines. Of the two, I prefer "Ether," as it plays more to McPhee's strengths of hazy, reverbent melodies and looping chord patterns. While I love both the gently pulsing chord progress and the lingering vapor trails that hang in the wake of the lead guitar melody, McPhee's larger achievement lies in how he seems to slow and blur the passage of time: the way his notes seem to burn off or ripple away into silence is often more significant than the notes themselves. The uncluttered clarity of his playing is similarly striking and out-of-step with the current musical landscape, as he consciously avoids any excess notes or layers that would dilute the direct/real-time beauty of his themes.

The album does not start to truly catch (lunar) fire until the following "Neptune," however, which improves upon the "Ether" formula with underlying chords distilled to shimmering, dreamlike swells with a gently swaying pulse. Given McPhee's working method of slowly building an architecture of loops in real-time, repetition is an unavoidable foundational element here, but "Neptune" makes that constraint seem like a gift, as the seesawing sway of the backdrop is sensuously hypnotic. Dean also ratchets up his use of vibrato and sustain on the lead melody to such a degree that it feels like his guitar is almost emulating a singing saw or theremin. It is easily one of the most beautiful pieces on the album and also features a characteristically interesting conceptual inspiration, as it is a homage to the doomed moon of Triton, which is slowly being dragged towards its parent planet as its orbit decays.

The LP's second side kicks off with the first of the new pieces, "Lunar Fire." For the most part, it occupies familiar stylistic terrain for McPhee (glacial kick drum, clean slow-motion arpeggios, sustain-heavy lead melody, etc.), but he tweaks the formula a bit with a synth-y sounding Ebow bass line and a coda where he plays a recording of crackling fire through guitar pick-ups for a dub-wise finale of cracks and pops.

Dean saves the best for last, however, as Astral Gold's final two pieces are both absolute stunners. The first is "Second Message," a eerily ritualistic and dream-like piece inspired by the Ilkley Alien that previously appeared on Folklore Tapes' recent UFO-themed compilation. The piece is only a mere three minutes long, but it is a perfect distillation of everything that I love about McPhee's work and culminates in an impressively otherworldly finale that lies somewhere between a squirming alien fireworks display and a séance with another dimension. The album then winds to close with the single-take shape-shifting epic "The Sediment of Creation," which starts off good and steadily gets better and better as more and more loops are incorporated (wah-wah, rippling chord shimmer, harmonized leads, a lingering haze of slow-burning swells, etc.). In short, it is a goddamn tour de force.

Normally, I do not particularly care whether something was recorded in a single take, as recording killer music is not the same as a jumping a canyon on a motorcycle (if a song would be better with overdubs, I am happy to hear the better version), yet "Sediment" earns an exception to my rule, as the real-time loop manipulation makes McPhee seem like a fucking sorcerer (not a bad way to end an album). For those unfamiliar with his oeuvre, those final two pieces make one hell of an introduction to a truly unique body of work. Longtime McPhee fans will likely have heard most of this album already, but "The Sediment of Creation" is brilliant and substantial enough to make the release of Astral Gold a significant event anyway. When McPhee is at his best, there is absolutely no one else that can match his singular slow-motion magic.

Listen here.