Instrumental music can have some major advantages over music constrained by vocals or your average pop/rock song format. Whether it’s a current group like Godspeed You Black Emperor! or Mogwai, or legends of the past, from Mozart to Miles Davis, musicians can use their instruments to express emotions and feelings that are too complex for words, and to create detailed atmospheres which words alone can not capture. Another instrumental group which has successfully created compositions with an open, evocative air about them is Tristeza. On their second full-length CD/LP Dream Signals in Full Circles, following up their 1998 album Spine and Sensory, the San Diego-based ensemble uses your basic guitar/bass/drums/keyboards configuration to produce beautiful, mysterious music.
Tristeza’s sound is based around the guitar-playing of Christopher Sprague and Jimmy Lavalle. At the center of the songs are interweaving guitars playing intricate patterns. Behind that is the bass and drums, with Stephen Swesey laying keyboards over it all, gently placing moods on top of the entwined melodies and rhythms. The music they all come up with is peaceful and relaxing but not stationary. There’s a constant subtle motion to it all, with repetition used to give structure and then slowly taken away to provide variety.
The biggest problem with some instrumental music, especially instrumental rock groups, is that of sameness. Bands fall into patterns so much that their style can be easily summed up with a quick phrase or sentence. Except for a few relatively similar songs near the album’s end, Tristeza evade this potential trap. They do so not only because of their musical talents, but mostly because their songs are substantially different from each other, even when they sound similar on first listen. As soon as I think, “this song sounds like the last one,” something comes in to surprise me, whether it’s funky, wah-wah guitarwork, a violin (on the stunning last track “Opiate Slopes”), a more rock-oriented approach or whatever. Tristeza’s songs are a lesson that bands can work the same terrain, communicating similar feelings or getting at the same moods, without sacrificing uniqueness or bringing on boredom for listeners.
Dream Signals in Full Circles is a nicely evocative title, and the circular cover art is a neat image; together they set up listeners to expect an album of poetic mystery. Tristeza does not disappoint. They aren’t using “instrumental innovation” as a gimmicky tagline or costume; they embody the best side of instrumental music, as it exists in this day and age. They aren’t imitating the legends of the past and they aren’t a hollow shell of sound without anything inside. Dream Signals in Full Circles sounds like a dream signal might: peaceful and pretty.
// Notes from the Road
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