“My idea is that if somebody ever comes to my music, that it adds up to something kind of intriguing and maybe there is some weird kind of consistency that emerges. But it’s definitely not going to be obvious.”
—Nels Cline, All About Jazz interview
Fans of Wilco are a rabid, loyal bunch. When Jeff Tweedy performs solo, they are there. When solo shows by drummer Glenn Kotche are available for trade on the Internet, they are there. And when new guitarist Nels Cline unleashes his holy skronk across a 28-minute free jazz blowout? Well, can I interest you in a John Stirratt side project?
It’s not that fans will shun Cline or his work, yet all but the most open and adventurous among them probably just aren’t ready for it. In fact, it’s nice that a band like Wilco has been able to push its listeners from insular, acoustic country-rock to fairly adventurous prog-rock in the space of five albums. But just as those new to the music of John Coltrane shouldn’t jump right from Blue Train to Interstellar Space, those wanting to further explore Cline’s music would do well to ease into things. For most, that means a disc like the new Immolation/Immersion probably ought to sit on the shelf for a while.
While most PopMatters readers will likely come to this disc because of Cline, the other players here are just as magnetic in the free jazz community. Alto saxophonist Wally Shoup is a formidable player who, despite a decades-long career, has just in the past few years started to emerge as known creative force, thanks in part to work with the likes of Thurston Moore and in duo performances with drummer Chris Corsano.
Corsano, who fills the drumming chair here, is no slouch either, mixing work with free jazzers like Shoup and Paul Flaherty with more adventurous rock groups like Six Organs of Admittance.
Cline’s most high-profile appearances of late make him the wildcard here. Beyond an unnoticed presence on Wilco’s contribution to the soundtrack for the Spongebob Squarepants movie, his only recorded work with that band is found on the recent Kicking Television live disc. And while his virtuosic fills and solos are nice enhancements to Tweedy’s songs—those triplets on “Company in My Back” are great, and the Eddie Van Halen-esque eruption on “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” is, um, interesting—one might wonder just what this acclaimed guitarist will bring to that group in the studio.
It’s hard to imagine a direct link between a free-for-all like Immolation/Immersion and anything the much more conventional Wilco might attempt, but this disc does offer plenty of examples of just how far out Cline can take things if given the chance. That might seem counter to what Cline would face in even the most adventurous rock band, where song structures and lyrical considerations can act to rein in exploration, but it’s clear that Cline finds a valuable outlet in rock music. In an interview with All About Jazz‘s John Kelman, Cline said, “There’s a certain place I like to go to when I’m playing, and that’s why I like to play in rock bands, because I can usually get there faster. It has to do with complete immersion, a certain kind of lack of dignity if you will.”
“Lack of dignity” doesn’t accurately describe his work with Wilco to date, nor does it really convey what he has done with other artists like the Geraldine Fibbers and Mike Watt. But it’s easy to see his point. Cline doesn’t let expectations get in the way of his work. At the same time, what he contributes to the work of others always seems to fit, even if it takes you to surprising places.
On Immolation/Immersion, the better description for Cline’s playing, and that of his mates, is a lack of restraint. Things start with a bang. The opening track, “Lake of Fire Memories”, feels like being dropped into the middle of some sort of seventh-circle tuning session. It’s two-and-a-half minutes of loosely controlled fury, and it sets the tone for the rest of the disc: This is not going to be an easy listen. This is free jazz, with all of the chaos and beauty that tag implies.
The most intimidating and rewarding part of the disc follows. The title track is the jaw-dropping achievement here, over 28 minutes that begin with a bit of noodling by sax and guitar before Corsano flies in from stage right to propel the next several minutes of exploration. Both Cline and Shoup coax amazing tones from their instruments. At one point, Cline manifests textures that are not unlike the sound of radio signals being broadcast from space, while Shoup mixes distorted honks and squawks with more fluid, lyrical passages.
Paying attention to even the catchiest piece of music for 28 minutes is a challenge; staying immersed in this for that long with any degree of focus is near impossible. But that’s not the point. If you let yourself actually lose focus a bit and allow the song to wash over you and experience it in an almost detached manner, it yields surprising results. The ebb and flow of the song resulting from the push and pull of these three instruments as they erupt and recede fills these 28 minutes to the brim. It’s a cathartic listen, and one that nearly overshadows the other three strong tracks that round out the disc.
“Minus Mint”, which follows, is aptly titled. It’s a refreshing pause after a heady meal, as Shoup’s supple playing allows the listener to wind down. It’s followed by perhaps the strongest song on the disc, the 13-minute “Beard of Pine”. At times it feels like “Immolation/Immersion” in miniature, the song rising and falling as the players take turns soloing. But the shorter length and more focused approach offer much more to grab onto, making it a better entry point. Things close with “Ghost Bell Canto”, a fine, relatively understated performance that is somewhat lost given what came before.
The whole experience of listening to Immolation/Immersion—and it is an experience, not just a passive thing—is wearying. Repeat listens are almost mandatory to fully appreciate all that is occurring here, yet only the heartiest listener will pull this out again and again when given other choices. Eventually, however, those who are looking for challenges beyond that which the Wilcos of the world can offer will explore Cline’s catalog and find this. By then, when they’re ready for it, Immolation/Immersion will offer ample rewards.