Guitarist Ava Mendoza has a solo album, New Spells, coming at the end of November. The CD version is on Relative Pitch, while the cassette and digital versions are on Astral Spirits.

The album offers five tracks in just under 38 minutes, and while they’re all recognizably Mendoza’s work — her particular brand of skronky, biting guitar is always recognizable, whether on her own albums like Unnatural Ways, We Aliens and The Paranoia Party, in a trio led by drummer William Hooker, on bassist William Parker‘s Mayan Space Station, or in any other context — each one makes a unique statement. The result is an album that blurs the lines between old-school country/blues picking and noise-rock fury, creating and sustaining a high level of energy even without rhythm instruments or steady riffs.

The opening track, “Sun Gun,” always feels like it’s about to explode, like a drummer’s about to slam his kit and crank the whole thing into high gear, but instead it hovers in place, building an almost unbearable suspense. Mendoza’s playing cycles up and up, relatively traditional figures going juuuuust a little bit weird, like a cross between Chet Atkins and Thurston Moore, with weird harmonies and long sustained feedback rumbles dragging the music along and letting it fall slowly to earth, like the notes are slightly heavier than the air they occupy.

“New Ghosts,” the album’s longest track at 9:41, is slower and more spacious. The figures Mendoza’s picking seem to be deliberately alienating, like she’s choosing notes right next to the ones you’d expect to hear at that moment, and there’s even more feedback and sustain, creating a perceptible separation between what she’s playing and the sharp-edged harmonics hovering around like a vicious swarm of gnats.

Those first two tracks are originals; the other three are outside compositions. “Ampulex Compressa” is by Trevor Dunn; Mendoza has been performing it live for some time. “Apart From” is by Devin Hoff, and the album-closing “Don’t Look” is by saxophonist John Dikeman. The latter is a sort of Fluxus-ish piece, in that the title page bears the message:

Please sight read this piece.
Do not look at the following pages.
Print on double sided paper.
Ideally, you probably want to start playing
before turning this page.

Dikeman is a member of the Dutch improv collective Doek; they’ve recorded an entire album of various interpretations of “Don’t Look” ranging from 47 seconds long to nearly 14 minutes. Mendoza’s version is a little under seven minutes, and consists of very dark variations on mid ’50s “Quiet Village”-esque instrumental music, albeit slathered in noise and distortion. In its final minutes, it devolves entirely into shrill and jagged sustained tones, floating past each other like warships made of brittle glass.

New Spells is a very good title for this album, because the music has a hypnotic, unsettling quality as if it’s opening a portal to another realm. In some ways it’s reminiscent of John Zorn‘s occult heavy rock compositions, the stuff he writes for groups like Moonchild and Simulacrum. But it’s absolutely the work of Ava Mendoza, whose stark and powerful playing and uniquely barbed compositions add up to some of the most exciting work being done in the blurry zone between out jazz and No Wave rock.

Phil Freeman

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