by Jeremy Zerbe
Talk about a long time coming. New York City's Sunwatchers' eponymous debut album is out on Castle Face Records tomorrow, but the band has been sowing the seeds of their new record since late 2014. Having demoed many of the new album's songs quietly over the course of three lo-fi, live-recorded releases, the band has spent the last year and a half shaping their swirling psychedelic improvisations of melody and noise into a beautifully terrible machine.
What we get on this first proper album is a remarkably (even surprisingly) refined and well-produced foray into Sunwatchers' world of labyrinthian jams, as they double back and build, guitar and saxophone lines snaking their way alongside one another, forking off into wandering variations before rejoining in triumphant refrain. While the early releases captured the raw, organic madness of the band, the recordings themselves lacked power, too full of the noise of negative space. Now, songs like the driving opener "Herd of Creeps" and its stoned followup, "For Sonny" sound like lightning and thunder, fully-realized at last.
That twinning of guitar and saxophone, rising and falling in almost arpeggiated riffs, is the glorious thread that runs through the entire seven-song, forty-minute album, keeping the listener afloat on their lilting tandem lines of melody, and it immediately called to mind one of my absolute most favorite, long-gone bands: Athens, GA's Dark Meat. It came as little surprise, then, to find that Dark Meat's frontman Jim McHugh was the one at the helm of this new, decidedly more krautrock project as well.
But do not think that Sunwatchers is just another neo-kraut band, jamming endlessly on the same droning, repeated patterns and simple, danceable drumbeats. They are a leaf on one of the more cerebral branches of that family tree, hearkening back more to Amon Duul II than modernists like Wooden Shjips. As the self-titled album reaches its halfway point, the band shrugs off what little traditional structure they've tenuously played with until that point and expands into pure free jazz. Their loose, rattling take on Robert Schumann's "Eusebius" from Carnaval, Op. 9 will not be for everyone, but it shows just how far-ranging the band's influences (and ideas) are.*
And once all of those expectations are destroyed, the band is free to do as they please for the album's latter half, where the eight-and-a-half-minute-long "Ape Phases" alternates between a sparse tribal dance beat and pure, unadulterated noise, and the album's final (and finest) moment, "Moonchanges," coalesces from beautiful ambient noise and guitar noodlings into a lush kraut-y jam that would bring a tear to Can's eye. This is a powerful record. It is brainy and brawny, full of intricate moments and massive riffs, working together in some strange and enchanting symmetry to make beauty out of madness. What a delight.
*Let's just take a moment to discuss that song, because I feel that it so illustrates the brilliance of the band. Big deal, a free jazz cover of a Romantic era song, right? Well, throughout Schumann's career, he wrote a number of pieces (including Carnaval) about two Jekyll and Hyde characters that he saw as aspects of his own personality: Eusebius, the more reserved, deliberate side; and Florestan, his more fiery, impetuous side. The famous melody that you may recognize on the saxophone is that of Eusebius, Carnaval's 5th movement, but as the song begins to fall apart a minute and a half in, you can hear subtle references to the following movement, the wild Florestan, just before the song descends into chaos. But, ultimately, the band returns to the refrain of Eusebius, the beautiful melody lifting them back up from insanity. Unlike Schumann, of course, who was plagued by demonic visions, attempted to kill himself by throwing himself off a bridge, and ended up dying in a sanitarium to which he'd committed himself because he was afraid he'd murder his wife, all due to some combination of syphilis, a colloid cyst and bipolar disorder. But that's a story for another time.