Steve Gunn is a hell of a guitar player. That’s no knock on his songwriting, which on albums like Time Off and The Unseen In Between reveal a range and intricacy that makes his music stand out even among the most talented figures in contemporary indie folk. But even in some of his best moments as a more traditional rock songwriter, he always makes room for moments of breathtaking guitar performance. He’s always been as much Fahey as Tweedy, maybe more so, and when given the space to explore his most exploratory instincts, he can accomplish some truly breathtaking things with just his guitar.
None of this should come as much of a surprise to anyone who’s kept up with Gunn-Truscinski Duo, his long-running project with drummer John Truscinski. Through their first three albums, they’ve covered a lot of ground without ever expanding beyond their fairly simple two-instrument setup, exploring elements of blues, jazz, folk, noise, Indian raga and American primitivism through improvisation-heavy performances of hypnotic psychedelia. Soundkeeper, their fourth and longest album, finds the duo pursuing an even greater musical challenge, spreading out a dozen tracks across two LPs with seemingly as many stylistic changes, but without ever losing that mesmerizing, otherworldly vibe that ties all of their music together, no matter how chaotic their muse.
The duo test that idea early on Soundkeeper, floating their way through a 90-second intro only to delve into a cacophonous expression of feedback and reverb on “Gam.” It’s less a stage-setting exercise than one of developing a kind of mystique—despite the gentle opening, the duo kicks up a heavy storm of dark clouds, booming and blustering their way through an open-ended journey of joy and chaos. It’s thrilling to hear two musicians conjure up that much pure sound through relatively simple means, but it’s also a testament to their instincts and abilities that, even beyond a purely aesthetic level, it’s hard not to want to follow them wherever they feel like going throughout its six minutes.
Approachability isn’t always or even often a factor when it comes to psychedelic freakouts of this caliber, but Soundkeeper is as much about its melodic allure as it is the sheer power of the duo’s expressions. On “Valley Spiral,” they embrace a meditative minimalism, never quite embracing the structural conceit of a more straightforward rock song, but throughout its duration offering the mere suggestion of it. There’s a bright immediacy to the bluesy slide exercise “Northwest,” and “Ocean City” carries a gorgeously laid-back sensibility, a low drone buzzing beneath Gunn’s spacious, melodic leads. Closing track “For Eddie Hazel” is one of the album’s most immediately arresting moments, a suitably heroic tribute to the late Funkadelic guitarist that comprises seven and a half minutes of sheer musical joy juxtaposed against Truscisnski’s percussive pulse. It feels alive and ecstatic, the closest that guitar playing comes to magic.
Within the first minute of the live-recorded “Pyramid Merchandise,” an enthusiastic member of the audience lets out an infectious “Woo!” It’s hard not to get caught up in a similar sense of excitement, in part because none of us have gone to any shows this year and it’s just a comforting thing to hear, and in part because the duo truly cook when they give themselves the space to do so—it’s one of two expansive, 10-minute-plus pieces on the album, and it smokes. It’s surrounded by ambient experiments, stripped-down solo performances, and moments that feel caught in some kind of psychedelic netherworld. But when Gunn and Truscinski are locked in, playing their hardest, channeling something beyond basic understanding, it feels like there’s nothing that can’t be done with just one set of drums and one guitar.
Label: Three Lobed
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.