William Tyler offers a contemporary and fresh version of 20th-century American Primitivism, an acoustic guitar genre introduced by legends like John Fahey and Leo Kottke, with the incredible skill of building narratives and constructing his compositions for powerful emotional effect. Over the course of two full-lengths and an EP, Tyler has branched out from the genre’s traditional homespun fingerpicking by adding new textures, including bass, cello, slide guitar and drums.
His latest release is Blue Ash Montgomery, a cassette- and digital-only release on the newly founded, Kickstarter-funded Lightning Records. On Blue Ash, Tyler puts a spotlight on his acoustic guitar; he envelops it in fuzz and drone and shows his skill at improvisation. “Parliament of Skulls” is the first of three compositions written for the release; it’s a devotional raga of repeating, circular chords and shredding electric guitar that bookend the song. Tyler cuts away into solitude with a single drone note resembling a lost Velvet Underground session. “The Ecstatic Vision of Madge Gill” is a heavy dirge-like song with heavy Appalachian overtones.
Tyler takes a left turn with the sound-collage experiment “The Bells of Stone Mountain.” The composition consists of the muffled, distant sound of a woman interviewing her father fading slowly into the background as familiar melodies and decaying notes creep in and the song cuts out. It recalls John Fahey’s Requia, an experimental album that was part Primitivism and part musique concrète. Blue Ash culminates in improvisation. The final, nameless track is a 28-minute performance by Tyler and avant-garde drummer Tim Barnes, recorded in 2012 at the Downtown Presbyterian Church in Tyler’s hometown of Nashville, Tennessee. It offers disparate percussion that morphs into a Gamelan Ensemble-type performance before Tyler introduces a gorgeous melodic figure and the composition winds into a raucous climax. Blue Ash Montgomery showcases some of the best experimentation and arranging Tyler has done to date.