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Ecstatic Sunshine - Way

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Artist: Ecstatic Sunshine

Album: Way

Label: Cardboard

Review date: Apr. 30, 2008

Ecstatic Sunshine’s second full-length is a far more serene and lyrical work than 2006’s Freckle Wars, less concerned with punk rhythms and discord, more involved in pattern and repetition. The two guitarists, Matt Papich and Dustin Wong, once constrained themselves to the natural, unaltered sound of electric guitar, intercutting pristine intervals with frantic, off-toned strumming. Here, they make freer use of pedals and effects, eliciting watery sustained tones and mirage-like episodes of tremolo. The guitars on Way often do not sound quite like guitars – more like chimes, flutes, even harpsichords, as they pick through luminous, repetitive patterns.

Way has just three tracks, two of them over the ten-minute mark, the short one extending more than seven minutes. The three cuts are markedly different from one another, yet linked in mood and approach. All of them stick to the tight, bell-like upper registers of the guitar. All evolve around short, geometrically precise strings of notes. All have a sunny, tranquil quality, tone and silence alternating like light through leaves.

“B” starts the album with the two guitars locked in complimentary four-tone patterns, both Papich and Wong following the same metronomically rigorous rhythm but with different notes. Their intersections create fleeting chords and discords. The repetition might remind you of Rhys Chatham (or followers like Jonathan Kane), but there is far less dirt and distortion in the tone and very little evidence of any blues influence. The highness and the separation of notes give the music a calm lucidity much like Bright or Nonloc. Just a hint of chaos enters in at the four and a half minute mark, as the two guitars move out of sync. It’s like watching a photo go out of register, the reds and blues and yellows slipping fractionally out of line with one another so as to take all sense out of the image. Closer to the end, notes are allowed to vibrate and fade as clarity shivers and splinters into uncertainty. Tremolo’d guitars wind down like clockwork as the track concludes, stuttering gradually to a halt.

“B” is full of negative space, the notes well separated by blots of silence. “Herrons,” by contrast, has a warmer, more continuous tone, its guitar notes turned breathy and melodious like flute tones. These notes hang in the air and overlap one another, not exactly in melody but in a bubbling pot of connected sounds. “Herrons” is also the track that makes the most use of feedback, evoking Growing or, particularly, Belong in its clouds of buzz and drone. Here, distortion builds until it obscures all notes, then subsides, then emerges again. It must be quite loud in performance, yet here on the record, the feedback has a sleepy, calming effect, smudging the edges, sanding away the rough spots.

With “Perrier,” we shift back to clarity, the guitars altered to sound like more harps or even harpsichord than guitar. One of the two, Papich or Wong, is playing a regular pattern, the other plucking the same oddly tuned, note over and over again, maybe tuning it down as he goes, so that the note flattens almost imperceptibly. The other guitar flurries and cascades around this steady, repeated sound, order and improvisation, pattern and imagination coexisting in harmony.

Way was a surprise to me, since I listened to Freckle Wars once when it came out and threw it back in the pile. At the time, Freckle Wars seemed too chaotic and formless, its discords maybe accidental, its lucid intervals too widely separated by pointless aggression and angst. Now, relistening to some of those tracks, I can hear a lot of what I like in Way, but expressed in a murkier, more inchoate fashion. Way is cleaner, clearer and more luminous – in all ways Ecstatic Sunshine’s best effort yet.

By Jennifer Kelly

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