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Rafael Toral, "Spectral Evolution"

Spectral EvolutionBefore I heard this album, I mistakenly believed that I had a reasonable familiarity with Rafael Toral's oeuvre, as I had heard and enjoyed a handful of his classic guitar-era albums such as 2001's Violence of Discovery and Calm of Acceptance. That said, it had been a while since I had kept tabs on his work, so I was quite curious to hear what made this "quintessential album of guitar music" exciting enough to reawaken Jim O'Rourke's decades-dormant Moikai label. As it turns out, absolutely everything about Spectral Evolution feels like a goddamn revelation to me and I am now kicking myself for sleeping on Toral's post-guitar Space Program-era of experimentation with self-built instruments. The psychotropic omnipresence of those self-built instruments makes it amusingly misleading to call Spectral Evolution Toral's return to guitar music, but if the presence of some recognizable guitar sounds lures more listeners towards this one-of-a-kind work of genius, I believe that claim has served a worthy purpose. Listening to this album was like hearing classic Merzbow or My Cat Is An Alien for the first time, as Toral plays entirely by his own set of rules and succeeds spectacularly.


After being properly gobsmacked by one of the album's early "singles" ("Fifths Twice"), I was not sure that I was even listening to the right album when I finally played Spectral Evolution for the first time. That feeling quickly dissipated after the first minute, but the album deceptively begins with Toral casually improvising around a few jazzy chords.on a relatively clean and effects-free electric guitar. It does not take long at all before that pleasant motif is absorbed by an otherworldly cacophony of whining harmonics and squirming electronics, however, and the wild ride that ensues leaves those jazz chords so far in the rearview mirror that they feel like a memory from a previous life. If someone held a gun to my head and demanded that I coherently explain what was happening in the album's opening minutes, I would probably resign myself to my imminent death, but "I think an alien jungle just crash landed onto an organ mass in Mindfuck City" is probably a reasonably accurate summation…temporarily, at least. If I waited another minute or so, however, I would probably lean more towards "a group of psychotic puppets just formed a jarringly discordant marching band and kicked this Mardi Gras party into overdrive!" Consequently, it is hopeless to make any generalizations about Toral's vision for this album at all unless that generalization is something vague like "an unpredictable series of dissolving lysergic mirages dreamed up by a madman."

That said, Toral is presumably not a madman at all and I am sure he knew exactly what he was doing at all times–I am just having an incredibly hard time comprehending how one human mind managed to weave together such otherworldly sounds with so many seemingly incompatible motifs and somehow still wound up with a mesmerizing and coherent album in the end. While Toral's instrumentation is modestly listed as "guitars, bass and electronic instruments," many of the most prominent sounds resemble someone strangling balloon animals in an alien rain forest. Amusingly, that is not unfamiliar territory for me as a fan of Rashad Becker's Traditional Music Of Notional Species albums, yet Toral's own psychedelic space jungle seems like it is also hosting an eclectic battle of the bands in which big band jazz, a gospel organist, Pink Floyd, and some Tuvan throat singers all strain to be heard in an undulating maelstrom of squirming electronic weirdness.

That said, there are also some unexpected moments of striking beauty along the way. In the aforementioned "Fifths Twice," for example, thick, lazily undulating synth-sounding tones intertwine to form a shifting array of strange and haunting harmonies. Notably, however, "Fifths Twice" is not a discrete piece on the actual album, as Spectral Evolution is presented as a single, endlessly shifting 47-minute opus and that is exactly the right way to experience this bold vision. Some parts are certainly more strange and dazzling than others, but any hint of a lull is merely a pregnant pause before the next wave of gibbering, howling, smeared, and primal electronic madness rolls in.

I am tempted to say that no one else could possibly make an album like this one, but I am frankly still trying to wrap my head around the fact that Rafael Toral himself managed to do it, as a lot of this album feels more like field recordings of a sentient extra-dimensional cloud than it does the work of some guy playing guitar in the mountains of Portugal. While I have never before felt more like I was dancing about architecture in trying to describe an album, I nevertheless feel quite comfortable in proclaiming that Spectral Evolution is a legitimately brilliant and singular release. It is probably also safe to say that this is already destined to be an Album of the Year candidate for anyone drawn to outer limits of psychedelia, as the limits of my imagination prevent me from envisioning anything that could top it.

Listen here.