In addition to his prolific work as a sideman, guitarist Ben Monder has released a series of albums as a leader which find him obsessively exploring and refining his singular vision. Releases ranging from 2005’s Oceanic to 2013’s Hydra are stunning not only for their virtuoso performances, but also for their ability to vividly invoke certain moods and atmospheres, which, in some ways, seems to be Monder’s signature.
The guitarist’s latest release, Amorphea, his first for ECM Records (get it from Amazon), finds him changing his methodology. Previous releases have often found him utilizing a fairly consistent ensemble of musicians to bring pieces to life that often seem to blur the lines between composition and improvisation. Amorphea, however, sees Monder collaborating with a new but no less impressive group of musicians in essentially free-form improvisations. On this album, the setting serves not only to recontextualize his sound, but also emphasize the consistency of his unique voice on the guitar.
The album begins with a solo piece titled “Tendrils.” In many ways, this might be the smoothest way to transition from his previous work to this new album. Monder displays his same melodic sensibility the experienced listener has come to know, while retaining his penchant for unusual and challenging harmonic choices. The second track finds Monder and no less than the late drum master Paul Motian (in whose Electric Bebop Band the guitarist served for several years; both men were also members of saxophonist Bill McHenry‘s quartet) investigating Rodgers and Hammerstein‘s “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” Their version is both loose and delicate. Early in the track, Monder seems to be channeling a less country-inspired take on Bill Frisell, but by the end his guitar soars, the tone overdriven and more reminiscent of bands such as Mono or Godspeed You Black Emperor.
“Tumid Cenobite” finds Monder in a duet with drummer Andrew Cyrille, working in his usual soft, understated atmosphere. The two following tracks, “Gamma Crucis” and “Zythum,” finds Pete Rende, on synthesizer, joining Monder and Cyrille. The former piece comes across quite unsettling, possibly appropriate for the soundtrack to a scene in a David Lynch movie, while the latter once again invokes Frisell, but this time sounding a bit more rustic.
“Triffids” is a short abstract piece, another duo with Motian. “Hematophagy,” another duo with Cyrille, is so minimal as to barely hang together, but remains compelling nonetheless. The album ends much as it began, with Monder performing alone. This piece, “Dinosaur Skies,” spends its first half nearly as hushed as the track before, but then the guitar begins to create a slightly distorted swell, the tone filtered through various effects. Everything from here on out is an exercise in ambience. Previous albums have always shown Ben Monder possessing breathtaking dexterity on the fretboard, but this release, and perhaps this track most of all, show his ability to work quietly. This perhaps might be an even greater challenge for one who has such great technique.
A new Ben Monder album is always something to look forward to, but if he ran the risk of becoming too predictable with the vision he pursued in the past, Amorphea certainly sidesteps such concerns. Anyone familiar with him is now afforded the opportunity to see a different side of his playing, but one no less impressive.
– Allen Griffin