The Rarity of Experience is another brilliant turn for Forsyth with the Solar Motel Band, but what makes it truly remarkable is that it also feels like a new start.
Chris Forsyth has spent a discography exploring the seemingly endless traditions and tones of the guitar. He experiments but always seemingly in the search of new structures. Since joining forces with the Solar Motel Band, ever since the tour for his 2013 Solar Motel album, Forsyth and the band have been working their way through the rock n' roll tradition, from the ever-expanding cycles off Solar Motel to the grand yet taut compositions on Intensity Ghost. Their new album, The Rarity of Experience, could be seen as their most ambitious. It's a double-record full of big, towering jams that runs nearly 75 minutes. But it's not so much more ambitious than the previous records as it is ambitious in a new way. It's a next logical step, and further proof that if Forsyth is looking for the limits of guitar-based music, he and the band sure haven't found it yet.
The album crashes to life immediately. "Anthem I" starts with pulsing guitar effects that lay a foundation before the song begins a call and response between the guitars and the rhythm section. Bassist Peter Kerlin and drummer Steven Urgo fire off crashing triplets that Forsyth and guitarist Nick Millevoi fill the space in between then with note-bending vamps and rolling hooks. On one level, it feels like the band just getting warmed up. But it's a track with its own cohesion. When the band starts stomping together, you know this isn't any preamble. They are in the middle of it. "Anthem II" makes that clear, opening up a rollicking structure that surges forward with vital energy and then stretches out in the middle. The interplay between Millevoi and Forsyth is tangled and brilliant throughout, while Kerlin and Urgo lay down complex beats that mesh with the guitars rather than fall in behind them. The band's huge sound here -- bigger, even, than the previous two epic records -- is also thanks in part to Shawn E. Hanson's contributions to the music on synthesizer.
Just as the band seems to stretch out, heading in the same huge orbits the Solar Motel Band has done before, they tighten up on the two-part title track. It's got all the hard-edge and brittle riffage of math rock -- not to mention vocals -- that make for an interesting shift from the "Anthem" tracks. But they also just remind the listener of the sturdy foundation at the heart of those other songs. No matter how grand Forsyth and the band gets, they never lose sight of the tight-wound center of these songs. "The Rarity of Experience II" is full of brilliant solos and synth-guitar interplay, and it weaves around steady, rumbling verses. The band dials in, tightens up, and still sounds big as hell.
The first half of the record breaks loose in all directions from there. "High Castle Rock" runs past ten minutes, though it starts with a lean hook. The band plays variations on that lead theme, and they play them with raucous abandon. It's the band at their fastest and most zealously exploratory. Urgo's snare rolls cut through the twin-guitar and keyboard attacks. Forsyth leads the group out into sonic wilderness and then back to the hook, again and again. It becomes clear at this point that Forsyth is not just a composer and explorer, but also a band leader. He's out front here, but his leadership comes in the way the focus shifts from time to time to all the players, the way in the end the band always returns to sounding like a unit. They give each other room, and that's what makes the songs seem all the tighter.
After "High Castle Rock" the album shifts into the more ruminant spaces of "Harmonious Dance", a mid-tempo number that builds slow, echoes out into space, and doesn't crescendo so much as it shimmers further and further outward. The space between the notes and the notes themselves seem to just melt together.
Past and present melt together, too. Forsyth has spent the past few records exploring rock traditions, but on the second half of The Rarity of Experience, he explores his own past. He remakes versions of two songs from his solo record, Kenzo Deluxe, and gives them the full-band treatment here. "The First Ten Minutes of Cocksucker Blues" still comes in wah-wah waves at first, but the band takes the stillness of the original and gives it propulsion. The shuffle-stomp of the drums, the fill-in phrasings form Millevoi and, finally, the saxophone solo Daniel Carter and hand-drumming of Ryan Sawyer bust the song open like "High Castle Rock", but give it the deep textures and space of "Harmonious Dance." The band also revisits "Boston Street Lullaby", but they take a more modest approach with the quiet tune, exploring the dissonance of off-notes, atmospherics, and negative space in a way they haven't yet on record.
The album closes with a ten-minute take on Richard Thompson's "The Calvary Cross", another chance for the band to blow-out an extended jam, but also another chance to build on tradition, to take the feel of Thompson's song and give it their own spin. It's a triumphant and fitting closer to the record that is better heard than explained. The Rarity of Experience is another brilliant turn for Forsyth with the Solar Motel Band, but what makes it truly remarkable -- and one of the finest guitar-driven records of this young 2016 -- is that it also feels like a new start. Like the band at its most cohesive, most experimental, and most exciting. It's an album that makes you questions the arbitrary limits of genre, the idea of what "rock" music really is. Then it pulls the rug out every now and again, as if to say stop being so damn cerebral and just get lost in these sounds. Or maybe it's that you can do both -- think about the music and get lost in it at the same time. I don't know, but I'll keep listening to figure it out.