This reissue of Robbie Bahso's 1979 album feels more like a conversation between him and his guitar about larger Western spaces.
Art of the Acoustic Steel String 6 & 12 was originally released in 1979 as Robbie Basho's definitive statement on his solo guitar work. It followed 1978's Visions of the Country, a masterpiece of an album. Both records have been reissued by Gnome Life Records and Grass-Tops Productions, and together as a pair they seem to do more than merely confirm Basho's genius on the guitar. Art of the Acoustic Steel String 6 & 12, in particular, shows a new side to Basho's playing, even as it acts as a prime example of his relationship to his instrument.
To talk about Basho is often to mention the influences of Eastern musical traditions. Visions of the Country, though, was an album exploring Western spaces, in particular the American West. He'd do this again more overtly on 1981's Rainbow Thunder, but Art of the Acoustic Steel String also continues this vision, often by clashing Eastern and Western sounds together. "The Grail and the Locus" is full of rolling, dusty playing, a kind of more esoteric reading of folk traditions that fellow Tacoma player John Fahey reveled in. The song also shows Basho buzzing and humming his guitar, turning phrasings in on themselves and cutting up those rolls into frenetic sprints, not unlike Ravi Shankar often does in his work.
Sounds, tempos, and moods clash all over these songs. In fact, looking back at this record now, it's strange to see it as an attempt at making Robbie Basho accessible, which at least in part it was. The likelihood, though, is that what makes this album more accessible than, say, Venus in Cancer, is the fact that Basho does little singing on the record. He does wander vocally through "Pasha II", and there you get to hear his booming, baritone find almost spiritual tones, the kind of sounds that rise from deep within a body. It's always been Basho's voice that was the most divisive part of his music, and on "Pasha II" it continues that tradition, yet sounds beautiful doing so. Despite the lack of vocals, the guitar work here is as intricate and challenging as anything else Basho has done. "Cathedrals Et Fleur De Lis" is a masterwork of surprising composition and spirited execution. Hard struck chords carve out space, and rippling, finger-picked swells fill it in. The first half of the song creates a sort of shadowy dream-like space and the second half plays around in that space, sometimes swelling into it with fervor, sometimes carving even deeper crags into the track.
There are more direct songs here, to be sure. The brief "Ackermas Special" is a playful palate cleanser, a pleasant parlor turn that doesn't dumb down the approach, but shows the bright feeling at the center of it all. "Apres Midi American" is also brief, but feels like some sort of bittersweet shadow to "Ackermas Special". It's a short song less interested in following a theme than it is in showing how many tangents it can fit within its small borders. The middle of the record shortens its movements without lessening its complexities, and in that way prepares us for the impressive closing movements of the record.
Chief among them is "Pavan India", the finest seven minutes on a brilliant album. In title, it suggests a look backward for Basho to the astral planes and Indian ragas of his earlier albums. Instead, it's yet another playful clashing of traditions. The playing on the track, as it moves from expected Tacoma phrasings into uncharted, frantic territory, builds a seemingly unsustainable momentum. If the album is, by and large, a calm and ruminant affair, then "Pavan India" is the one song that fully breaks from the set's sustained hush. It rattles and echoes and hums along, the chords and notes piling up in tense piles only to unpack themselves by circling back around to the roll that opened the track.
The album's title feels instructional, almost professorial, but the compositions here are on fire, as serious in their conviction as they are playful in their execution. Where Visions of the Country felt like Basho and his guitar transmogrifying Western spaces, Art of the Acoustic Steel String 6 & 12 has a different sort of intimacy. These songs feel more like a conversation between Basho and his guitar about these larger spaces, a way for him to talk about them through music, with the music. Perhaps that's why he doesn't sing as much on these recordings, perhaps the back and forth with his guitar is enough. For the listener of this classic set, it's way more than that.