Pelt - "Fire Signs On The Edge Of The Field" (Dauphin Elegies)
Acoustic drone: pretty self-explanatory, right? Still, Dauphin Elegies doesn't quite sound like you'd expect. There's a creeping sense of unease here that is sometimes closer in spirit to Excepter's anti-human rumblings than the radiant, fourth-world tambura vibrations you might expect. The word ‘drone’ itself suggests a monolithic, enveloping entity, but Mike Gangloff, Mikel Dimmick, Nathan Bowles and Patrick Best, by restricting themselves to acoustic instruments (the sole exception here being a certain “New Jupiter Machine”) opt to spend around half the time playing around with silence rather than sustaining a single tone; "Waning Crescent" opens the album with 10 minutes of incantatory gong. Ultimately, the album is just as accurately categorized as well-paced free improv – Pelt spends as much time exploring chance and spontaneous gestures as they do building and navigating the album’s droning centerpiece, “Cast Out to Deep Waters.” It’s a deliberate move – acoustic instruments, after all, are just as capable of creating blown-out sounds as electronic ones. The purpose of the playing here is sculptural, with sounds positioned in careful relation to silence rather than on top of and obliterating it.
Pelt's best quality on the four tracks that make up Dauphin Elegies is their specificity: The music here addresses a particular situation. This is the basic idea of improv, but it's rarely the reality – if (anti-)technique or hermeneutics don’t get in the way, then a lack of context can kill even spirited performances when recorded for posterity. There's an informality, which is not to say a lack of ambition, to Dauphin Elegies, and it’s this sense of purposefully concerning itself with only a small corner of the world that makes it a consistent experience. That same specificity means that it's best enjoyed with a captive imagination. This is good music to lay down in bed to, alone: even on the album’s most droning piece, the fun comes from paying close attention to the quartet’s careful math, as bows bound and scrape against strings, adding to or subtracting from whatever else is caught in the frame.
There’s a strong kinship between this music and R. Keenan Lawler’s (the band recorded with him as Keyhole), or even, at moments, Joëlle Léandre’s. Pelt approach their string instruments kinetically, never settling for melody or suggestions of it when gesture is enough, and steering their playing towards a creaky, weathered brand of Americana. In the three years since the release of their previous long-player, Untitled, this quartet of Virginia gentlemen have limited their options, but found a way to do more with their materials. There’s less messiness or residue here, none of the clamor to be heard that threatened to choke off the band’s voice. Concluding the album with a three-minute breather called “Crown of Comets” seems designed to acknowledge this change. The track, made up of nothing but the sound of bells recorded, the liner notes inform us, “in the caves of the old lime works at Falls Ridge,” has an eerily flat quality, one which stands in stark contrast to the homey depth of the rest of the album. It’s a nice reminder to take a step outside.