Initiate is guitarist Nels Cline’s fourth release with his trio (and seventh, if you’re counting his efforts as a leader). The album is split between two discs. The first is a studio album recorded over three days in spring 2009, and the second is a live recording from San Francisco in the fall of the same year. A few choice musicians are sprinkled throughout, like pianist David Witham and Cibo Matto’s Yuka Honda. And the good folks of Deerhoof help out in pounding some percussion during the live set.
The studio portion of Initiate finds Cline and company working classic jazz techniques over familiar rock modes. Drummer Scott Amendola pulses steadily while Cline and bassist Devin Hoff dart in and out of the beats. The 13 tracks work more together than as individual songs. Clusters of music mark different periods of a ship’s journey through choppy seas. The skronky “Floored” builds anxiety through a particularly rough patch, but it gently parts to make room for the calm “Divining.” The meditative “Mercy (Supplication)” conversely opens up to the delicate and intricate arpeggios of “Grow Closer.” In this manner, the dynamics of Initiate‘s first disc are more restrained or subtle than 2007’s Draw Breath.
It is partly because Cline relies less on his effects to manipulate sounds and more on the unfiltered sounds coming out of his instruments; he saves certain moments, like “Red Line to Greenland” and “Scissor Saw,” for these excursions. But it is likely more because the group strikes a relaxed equilibrium in every cut. Whether shuffling along to the Fela-inspired “King Queen” or taking a zero-gravity dip in the womb on “Into It (You Turn),” the Singers maintain a consistent balance of tone and personality. The record feels less like one dominant personality or a series of dominant personalities taking the spotlight. Instead, it feels like a series of equal collaborations.
The live half of Initiate finds the Singers flipping the script and blowing heads with rock muscle and head-scratching licks. There are a couple numbers from 2006’s The Giant Pin (“Blues, Too” is appropriately dedicated to the “genius of improvised music” Jim Hall). The group also looks to its forebears for some inspiration, re-reading Carla Bley’s “And Now the Queen” as a noodly point of reflection, and peeling away the blaxploitation sheen of Weather Report’s “Boogie Woogie Waltz” to reveal a juiced-up Band of Gypsies. However, the band gets hot while rocking the fuck out on the destructo-bot “Raze” and steamrolling through the aptly titled “Thurston’s Country.” Though showmanship and, at times, volume are the hallmarks of the second half of Initiate, the Singers still demonstrate a remarkable synchronicity.
Where the previous albums of the Nels Cline Singers — Draw Breath, The Giant Pin and Instrumentals — functioned like conventional albums, or conventional collections of songs, Initiate feels more like an intimate glimpse of how musicians communicate with each other.