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Fricke’s Picks: Guitar Wonders From Circles Around the Sun, Howlin’ Rain and More

Four new albums feature different shades of psychedelia

Neal Casal of Circles Around the Sun and Ethan Miller of Howlin' Rain.

David Fricke spotlights guitar-centric psychedelia from Circles Around the Sun, Howlin' Rain and others in a new Fricke's Picks round-up.

Jordi Vidal/Getty Images, Harmony Gerber/Getty Images

The theme is simple here: four albums with guitars galore — solo and in tandem; loaded with effects and stripped to pure tone; in settings where you least expect them, but always in flight.

Circles Around the Sun, Let It Wander (Rhino)
This tripping-instrumental quartet was certified authentic psychedelia before they ever appeared on record — by no less than the surviving members of the Grateful Dead. Guitarist Neal Casal of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood started Circles Around the Sun with keyboard player Adam MacDougall (another member of the Brotherhood), bassist Dan Horne and drummer Mark Levy after he was commissioned to create original intermission music for the Dead’s Fare Thee Well reunion shows in 2015. Those jams, played over the P.A. and highly rated by the freaks at those gigs, were subsequently released as the 2015 album Interludes for the Dead. Casal, who has also played with Ryan Adams and the Dead offshoot Phil Lesh and Friends, reconvened Circles Around the Sun this year to record their first stand-alone album. Let It Wander is a two-CD set of even deeper spells that thread suggestions of Little Feat–style grooves and Bernie Worrell’s percolating synthesizers in Parliament-Funkadelic through the German mid-Seventies space travel of Tangerine Dream and the offbeat churn of the Dead’s “Estimated Prophet.” A spoken cameo by Public Enemy’s Chuck D at the start of “One For Chuck” attests to the funk at the core of these improvisations and the ultraviolet hip-hop samples lurking inside.

Howlin’ Rain, The Alligator Bride (Silver Current)
Like Casal, singer-guitarist Ethan Miller of Howlin’ Rain is steeped in Bay Area iridescence, originally in the psychedelic tornado Comets on Fire, lately in side outfits such as Heron Oblivion and Feral Ohms. The Alligator Bride is a thundering exultation with Miller and Daniel Cervantes firing quivering needles of pinched-fuzz guitar through the California dreaming like a pair of Neil Youngs in Crazy Horse–style gear. There is an undercurrent of bummer — the fractured relationships and spiritual exhaustion running through Miller’s lyrics. “You can buy a pistol but you can’t buy a thrill,” he sings in “The Wild Boys,” punning on the 1972 Steely Dan album title to grim effect. But in “Missouri” and the title track, at full storm, Howlin’ Rain reach for guitar nirvana in the kind of high — and promise — that never gets old.

Yonatan Gat, Universalists (Joyful Noise)
This Israeli-born New York-based guitarist had me at “hello” when he opened a recent Manhattan set with the pocket surf-metal and jazz-thrash dynamite of “Cockfight,” one of the tracks on this round-the-world-in-half-an-hour album. In the first decade of this century, Yonatan Gat was a high-speed riff slinger in the Tel Aviv garage band Monotronix. Over the past decade, he has expanded his range of invention and dynamics as a leader of his own groups and in collaboration with members of Deerhoof and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. On Universalists, his second solo album, Gat whips through his broad ambition, veering from the frantic juxtaposition of stinging twang and sampled choir in “Cue the Machines” to the reverb-soaked poise of “Fading Casino” (with its Erik Satie–esque theme) and “Medicine,” which grounds Gat’s strident, treble celebration in the hypnotic propulsion of the Eastern Medicine Singers, a Native American chanting and drumming ensemble. Already a citizen of the world, Gat wields his guitar like a universal translator.

Steve Tibbetts – Life Of (ECM)
In a 1994 Rolling Stone review, I described this Wisconsin-born guitarist’s fifth ECM album and seventh overall, The Fall of Us All, as “a dynamic study of Eastern modality and universal spiritualism driven by rock & roll ambition.” While many of his records reflect his travels and collaborations in Bali and Nepal, Life Of, Tibbetts’ first record in eight years, is a series of portraits rooted in home and memory, named after family members and friends (“Life of Emily,” “Life of Joel,” “Life of Carol”) and performed on 12-string acoustic guitar with percussion and cello drones embedded at near-subliminal volume. The effect is a seductive impressionism of fluid melodic figures and rippling arpeggios with a quietly firm, emotional undertow. For the more searing, electric side of Tibbetts’ exploration, start with Yr, his second album, originally self-released in 1980 and musically located at a turbulent, futurist intersection of Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland and John McLaughlin’s 1971 acoustic Indo-jazz classic My Goal’s Beyond. Life Of, in turn, proves great psychedelia also comes in whispers.

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