Dave Heumann is a guitarist of the old school. That is to say, when fans talk about Heumann’s guitar work, they’re often apt to use words like “idol” or “god”. They’re also likely apt to then list to you their favorite drug experiences, organized by location and substance. Many of these trips may have involved watching Heumann’s band, Baltimore-based Arbouretum, play some of its neo-stoner anthems to a packed house of the swaying devoted. Arbouretum traffics in American psychedelia, its songs building and pulsing under complex guitar work and spiraling instrumentation, often climaxing in waves of noise. Think equal parts American Gothic doom and drug-soaked ‘60s dopamine fests.
Heumann has a new act now, Coil Sea, and he’s releasing the band’s debut eponymous album through Arbouretum’s home label, Thrill Jockey Records. Though listeners will find many of the same touch-points within the two projects—most notably, of course, Heumann’s guitars, alternatively sludging and shredding—Coil Sea has a different M.O. than Arbouretum. As Heumann explains it, the name of Coil Sea’s game is improvisation. The guitarist assembled a team of his favorite musicians, including members of Big in Japan and the Anomoanon, and recorded several days worth of mostly improvisational sessions. Sometimes, Heumann would come in with a basic guitar melody written for a track, and the band would work from there. Other times, they’d simply start from scratch. Those recordings, with limited editing and mixing, became the record Coil Sea will deliver to the world on 24 August 2010.
The LP opens with “Abyssinia”, its shortest piece at just under seven-and-a-half minutes. “Abyssinia” lopes along gently at first, Heumann’s scuzzed-out guitar building a steady lockstep with drummer Michael Lowry’s solid backbeat. Slowly, other elements emerge: chiming and droning guitars under Heumann’s lead, bass work that offers less of a rhythm than a nice counterpoint to Heumann’s melody. Listeners hoping for the track’s impressive tension to burst may be disappointed—Heumann does indulge himself in some brief soloing toward the song’s end, but his fellow musicians seem content to nod their heads along to the beat and keep things mellow.
“Dolphins in the Coil Sea” fares better for those about to rock. The track gives off more of an improvisational vibe than its predecessor, with Lowry opting for a loose, jazzy beat to underscore Heumann’s high-necked meandering. The blend of beautiful, distorted guitar tones with such a jazz-inspired core is reminiscent of a strange bedfellow for any Heumann project: late ‘90s indie favorites American Football, but with more pot and less LiveJournal. “Dolphins” is what folks would call “atmospheric”, sure, but it builds an atmosphere less likely to have you sit and appreciate it from a distance than one to slowly swallow you up into its disarming sweep. Less a distant mountain range, more a desertscape asking you to sweat with it (yes, peyote comes to mind). It’s by far the strongest track on the record, perhaps the singular time that Coil Sea’s freewheeling intentions really coalesce into something of note.
“Revert to Dirt” lays on the druggy haze a bit too thick, taking too long to really get going. Once it locks into a bass-led groove somewhere around the five-minute mark, it’s quite immersive. Intriguingly, it’s an example of Heumann hanging out in the background rather than taking the lead with his axe, and the song seems to suffer without his central presence. Album closer “Waking the Naga” benefits from a more driving rhythm, Lowry’s tom-heavy approach taking the song slowly but confidently into its excellent final few minutes, where Heumann again asserts himself with some satisfyingly washed out psychedelic fuzz.
Overall, Coil Sea seems more like an interesting experiment than a finished, fully realized album. However, that may be exactly the point. Dave Heumann and company have made a record of ideas, a record—in the literal sense—of a specific place and time in their musical lives. In the band’s better moments, they really have created something transportive. If you’re not into mind-altering substances, Coil Sea might be able to help you get away from the mundane and normal anyway.