Albums like these must be fun to make, but are they fun to hear? In the case of the self-titled first release from the J Mascis-bolstered, entirely instrumental Heavy Blanket, the answer depends on the attention span of the listener. For the past 30 (!) years, Mascis has been tearing up fretboards with Dinosaur Jr., Witch, the Fog, and others. And while he’s long since acquired the reputation of an indie guitar hero, this album is the first instance of Mascis going for broke with the six strings, as (no joke) 90 percent or more of the album consists of him shredding, hard, with few breaks. It’s easy to deem this kind of stuff as overly flashy self-indulgence, but when it comes to Mascis, you have to look a little deeper. After all, the ever-inscrutable 46-year-old has proved time and again that he has uncanny melodic bite to go along with those technical gifts (check “Feel the Pain,” say, or “Listen to Me” for evidence of that).
Bassist “Johnny Pancake” and drummer “Pete Cougar” (quotes because they’re probably Mascis pseudonyms) are, as press-release legend has it, a rhythm section that Mascis has known since high school, in the early ‘80s, when these songs were purportedly written. And it’s those two dudes who, though skilled musicians themselves, act as relatively banal sonic wallpaper in the room of Heavy Blanket. Most of the time here, they sound almost like a rhythm section that comes with the CDs included in instructional metal-guitar books – by no means stagnant, but modest enough that within the first few seconds of opener “Galloping Toward the Unknown,” you know this is all about he with the ax.
Where that becomes a problem is usually around the 90-second mark of each of the six songs here, when it becomes clear that the fast-and-furious – yet completely tuneless – Mascis solos that throttle the cuts into orbit aren’t going to stop. (Imagine the solo in “Changing,” from Witch’s self-titled first album, continuing for 38 minutes and you’re getting an idea of the monotony). So, yes, this is almost selfishly indulgent, and unless you haven’t heard the previously released “Dr. Marten’s Blues,” you have very little to learn from the rest of the album. It’s disappointing, because it showcases none of those melodic sensibilities that have found Mascis so many fans over the past three decades.
For his May/June 2012 Spin article “Shredder, Alive,” writer David Marchese round up one “cohort of young guitar slingers” to expel the supposed stereotypes of modern six-string shredding: that it’s futile in terms of the big picture of song, that it signifies vanity in its practitioners, etc. Several of the guitarists interviewed for the piece were understandably defensive about the topic – “Eddie Van Halen-style solos can be emotionally genuine,” said Ponytail’s Dustin Wong, for instance. He’s right, but eruptions like Van Halen’s aren’t meant to be incessant, and modern-day guitar-fueled instrumental music doesn’t have to be steeped in excess – try Emeralds member Mark McGuire’s widescreen solo stuff or Wong’s cylindrical new Dreams Say, View, Create, Shadow Leads. But when it comes to Heavy Blanket, it’s like: You’re good at guitar, Mascis. We get it.