“Oneiric”, as Merriam Webster or the Oxford English Dictionary might note, applies to content whose narratives are dream-like or packed with the stuffing of dreams. And so goes the central premise of Oneiric Formulary, the new LP by Sir Richard Bishop and the ex-Sun City Girls six-string guru’s first solo outing since releasing the masterful Tangier Sessions in 2015. “Oneiric” is an appropriate qualifier for the 10 songs Bishop presents here, as they seem to be captured in his guitar’s web through a kind of gauzy half-consciousness, that space between wakeful awareness and the surrealism of slumber.
Even a more straightforward tune like the infectious jazz-popped and vaguely Ribot-ish “Mit’s Linctus Codeine Co.” is filtered through a filmy sonic blindfold – the moon nothing more than a flashlight, covered in wax paper, shining its face on a cobwebbed ceiling. Good luck finding the floor at you traverse this thing. Oneiric Formulary is a record that rejoices in its implicit logic, however bizarre. It keeps the listener wandering a bit in the dark, waiting for the next drop in elevation to take off in flight.
I’m sad to report, though, that the new record, out 17 April via Drag City, is often more inconsistent than past Sir Richard Bishop efforts, with Bishop darting between majestic acoustic balladry and often only half-initiated experimentation. For all the wonder of the life-affirming “Celerity”, a real gem, where Bishop’s race-to-the-finish bravado occasionally leans flamenco, there’s “Graveyard Wanderers”, a muddy, joyless nine-minute noise romp sans any semblance of stringed instruments. Drag City should have nudged him to leave much of that track on the cutting-room floor. Bishop nails his southeast Asian points of reference on the hip-shaking, pitch-perfect “Dust Devils” but aims for pathos. He comes up with something paltry, on the sparse, sometimes-interesting/sometimes-lost tune “Renaissance Nod”. If “Celerity” is daring, opener “Call to Order”, the song that precedes it, is disposable. For Bishop, a master at his craft, it’s a weird kind of unevenness.
Oneiric Formulary being a Sir Richard Bishop record, there are moments, of course, that will blow your mind. He doesn’t hesitate to serve up his instrumental compositions with signature flair. On the beatific and sometimes-Appalachian “Enville”, which falls in the LP’s closing quarter, Bishop emulates and seemingly one-ups the blues fingerpicking transcendence of a John Fahey or Leo Kottke – no small feat. The closing arpeggios take a song like Fahey’s “Sligo River Blues”, with its almost-somber and methodical pacing, and injects it with loads of caffeine or dream-amphetamines. Utterly mesmerizing. The song is followed by “Black Sara”, with its flamboyant colors and extra-musical turns of phrase. Then again, that song, unfortunately, is followed by “The Coming of the Rats”, which accents its dissonant blues scales with the borderline annoying, eBow-like buzz of an ever-present synthesizer.
Thankfully, Bishop closes the record in style with the classical guitar noodling of “Vellum”. Here, there are throngs of themes and points of departure, bridges where Bishop sounds all too willing to launch his hammered-on trills and six-string head-spins like so many fireworks in a black night sky. The work is steady-handed, even conservative by the guitar experimentalist’s standards, and goes six minutes or so without losing its footing. About halfway through, “Vellum” again flirts with the levity and bombast of flamenco, and it’s in moments like this when you realize that Bishop, even in his lesser moments, can cast a mean spell on listeners’ ears.
Even when this man is aiming for the target and missing, his calculations are worth noting and experiencing. Oneiric Formulary, in turn, might not be his best record or feature his best work – but it’s more engaging and sonically adventurous than most of what those who consider themselves the lauded experimental jet-set can muster. There’s a reason this guy goes by “Sir”.