(Very Special Recordings, 2017)
Of course that’s not a guitar! I yelled to myself over the rumbling thunder and sheets of rain – it’s just that time of day around here – and I had to crank up the volume on Xander Naylor’s Arc to get a true sense of what I was actually listening to. No, certainly not – I can vouch with 100 percent certainty that Naylor does not play a lick of guitar on this tape. Not a single note. You can trust me, my ears are foolproof – there’s no way I’m wrong about this.
Oh, hey – Xander Naylor plays “guitar” (and yes, also “electronics, sequencing”) according to the liners. Um – how much of that egg on my face is visible from a distance of over a hundred feet? All of it? Shoot.
Well, that’s the interesting thing about Arc then, isn’t it? Naylor isn’t one to do the usual, the old standbys, the melodic scales, the strummed open chords. No, instead he creates a language all his own, one that works whether it’s unadorned, as on something outrageous like “Pinball” or more subdued like “Elegy,” or souped up with, ahem, “electronics” and “sequencing” (e.g. “Natural Born Relic,” “Dry Your Boots”). He even dips his toes in some ambient (“Observing Silence”) and noise (“How to Ward Off a Werewolf”) waters.
But those guitar pyrotechnics are Naylor’s calling card – “Pinball” imagines a standoff between Eddie Van Halen and Les Claypool, but it’s all and only ol’ Xander here, riffing the crap out of his axe in breathless runs up and down the fretboard. Somehow “Bad for Glass” sounds like jazz piano. “Natural Born Relic” throws percussion and samples into the mix, but it’s no less virtuosic – in fact, it brings all the different pieces together in the center of the album, acting as a sort of oasis from the more madcap stylings otherwise.
Naylor comes across as a mix between a guitar-slinging Colin Stetson and a guitar-slinging Fred Frith, with the result (and main takeaway) being that he’s a pretty competent guitar slinger, no matter what style he’s tackling. This makes Arc an astoundingly engaging listen, from front to back, as Naylor moves restlessly from one thing to the next. Even if you end up completely wrong about what instrument is being played, you can still enjoy yourself. I sure did.