Elkhorn Improvise the Hypnotic 'Storm Sessions'

Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Instrumental guitar duo Elkhorn tweak the formula with a third musician on their latest album, The Storm Sessions. Rarely has a blizzard sounded this good.

The Storm Sessions

Beyond Beyond Is Beyond

7 February 2020

In 2013, Jesse Sheppard and Drew Gardner formed Elkhorn, a duo capable of unspooling mesmerizing long-form guitar improvisations. With Sheppard on 12-string acoustic and Gardner handling six-string electric, their sound is capable of evoking both calm and eerie danger. Over the course of several albums, they've stuck to a fairly consistent formula.

The Storm Sessions signals a slightly different sound, and it's one that can be attributed to manpower. As a result of circumstances beyond their control, Sheppard and Gardner have invited their friend Turner Williams into the fold. Williams, who records under the moniker Ramble Tamble, found himself snowed in with the other two guitarists "on the night of an emotionally important gig" (so says the press release, which mysteriously fails to elaborate). Thus, a weather-inspired collaboration was formed.

Stuck with instruments to play and nowhere to go, this duo temporarily became a trio, recording two side-long improvisations (titled "Electric One" and "Electric Two" with each side split into three separate subsections) totaling roughly 45 minutes. Adding to the duo's guitars, Williams contributes electric bouzouki on one side and shahi baaja on the other. The latter instrument, the name of which translates to "royal instrument", is an electrified and slightly modified version of the Indian bulbul tarang, a type of Indian zither with keys added to alter the pitch of the strings. Williams' presence adds a unique element to the sound, but it doesn't drastically alter it. Rather, it deepens what's already a captivating template.

The triple layer of sound is used to haunting effect from the very beginning. Williams enters the picture gradually, taking advantage of his instrument's haunting, drone-like qualities, eventually adding a more distorted sound profile as the first side progresses. Sheppard and Gardner successfully join forces in the kind of way that two long-time collaborators usually do – it's almost like osmosis, a thick slab of dark pastoral folk with the electric guitar reminiscent of Jerry Garcia's intricate improvisational style. Williams darts in and out with plenty of interesting, unique ideas – he clicks with the other two immediately, and it never seems like an unwelcome intrusion.

While the three musicians seem to move in all sorts of directions but never to the point of breaking free of each other, there are moments when they gel beautifully as one cohesive unit. That is particularly apparent in "Electric Two (Part B)", as a subtle, almost strobe-like staccato effect overtakes them. The effect is hypnotic, and most likely, something of a happy accident within the freeform improvisational structure.

Great albums have come out of the most unusual circumstances, and with The Storm Sessions, Elkhorn proves that it's possible to take an unforeseen episode and turn into a transcendent evening of pure, unfiltered inspiration. Rarely has a blizzard sounded this good.





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