Bent Arcana - Bent Arcana Music Album Reviews

Oh Sees leader John Dwyer indulges his jammiest tendencies alongside a new cast of powerhouse players, channeling a distinctly 1970s sort of communal exploration.

John Dwyer likes to keep Discogs editors busy. Over the last couple of decades, the Oh Sees guitarist and bandleader has founded a string of often short-lived projects—Pink and Brown, Damaged Bug, Zeigenbock Kopf—while also turning out a steady stream of music with his best-known group (which might also be written as Thee Oh Sees, or OSees, or OCS, depending on whim, day of the week, phase of the moon, and so on). You get the sense that Dwyer’s slippery approach to identity is guided by his puckish streak, but there’s a method, too: Each new name offers an opportunity to view his firecracker creativity from a fresh angle.
So it is with Bent Arcana. Recent Oh Sees records have augmented the group’s garage-punk attack with a looser, jammier sensibility, and now Dwyer is going all in, assembling a sprawling ensemble drawn from the worlds of jazz and avant-garde improvisation. It doesn’t quite feel right to call it a “supergroup”—that suggests a certain level of name recognition, and the closest you get here to star material is TV On The Radio’s Kyp Malone, holding it down on modular synth. The lineup favors underground heads, all apparently selected for their technical mastery and taste for live experimentation: Brooklyn drummer-for-hire Ryan Sawyer, Sunwatchers bassist Peter Kerlin, saxophonists Joce Soubiran and Brad Caulkins, and violinist Laena “Geronimo” Myers-Ionita. Bent Arcana is Dwyer’s way to break free from the shackles of songcraft and lose himself in the ocean of group creativity.

The six tracks of Bent Arcana’s self-titled debut are excerpted from five days of extended improvisation at Dwyer’s own Stu-Stu-Studio recording space. The mood is freeform and exploratory in a distinctly 1970s vein: think electric Miles Davis, the furiously complex jazz fusion of Mahavishnu Orchestra, and the funkier end of krautrock. If you heard much of this music blind, you’d struggle to date it. Hitting play on “Misanthrope Gets Lunch” feels like being dropped in midway through some long-lost Can live performance: a “Mother Sky”-style drumbeat rises and falls, feints and tumbles, as plectrums scrape along strings and a modular synth chokes out clouds of static.

Though Dwyer calls Bent Arcana “frenetic” in his liner notes for the album, it generally lacks the pugilistic attitude of much of his work. Opening track “The Gate” is swampy and restrained, with drums set to a low simmer, and snakish guitar and saxophone keeping loose and low. Perhaps it’s the title, but “Outré Sorcellerie” has a whiff of the occult; its shadowy improv will be familiar to fans of the influential Euro-jazz label ECM, as a lonely saxophone weaves through a gloomy antechamber of chimes and bass.

Though Bent Arcana can sag in its less propulsive moments, the band generally hits the right ratio between eerie investigation and chunky jams. A highlight in the latter style is “Oblivion Sigil,” 11 minutes of bass-and-drums shuffle with Dwyer adding the occasional acrobatic guitar scrawl. The record’s most melodically memorable moment comes in “Mimi,” a gorgeous but disappointingly brief saxophone duet, over in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it 84 seconds.

Dwyer has hinted this might be the first chapter in a series of releases dedicated to this off-the-cuff approach. You wouldn’t want his new band to nudge out his more song-powered releases, but given his exceptional work rate, there’s probably not much danger of that. Though Bent Arcana is certainly an ensemble effort, it also stands as an example of yet another style that Dwyer’s more or less nailed. If you’re going to dispense with songwriting, here’s the best way to do it—assemble a band of extraordinary players, hit on a groove, and follow it wherever it takes you.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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Bent Arcana - Bent Arcana Music Album Reviews Bent Arcana - Bent Arcana Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Saturday, August 29, 2020 Rating:

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