Guitarists William Tyler and Steve Gunn make rock that combines historical awareness with innovation 

Whole New Groove

Whole New Groove

Instrumental rock music has evolved since 1970, when jazz, country and blues influenced the work of artists as different as Miles Davis and Area Code 615. These days, a rock guitarist creating instrumental music has more to work with than did the Nashville band Area Code 615, whose records gave a Music City spin to their originals and Beatles covers. Despite the skill of Area Code 615's musicians, parts of their records now sound hokey — that's a word you can't apply to the latest efforts by guitarists William Tyler and Steve Gunn. On last year's Time Off, Gunn added vocals to his jazz-blues patterns. Meanwhile, Nashville axman Tyler has a new EP, Lost Colony, that marries krautrock rhythms to tunes that borrow ideas from '70s singer-songwriter music. Often identified with the post-John Fahey school of solo guitarists, Gunn and Tyler chafe at the limits of Fahey's music throughout their latest recordings, and the strain becomes them.

Time Off and Lost Colony seem of a piece, despite the presence of vocals on Gunn's record and their absence on Tyler's. Both men have been around for several years — at 37, Gunn is two years older than Tyler. And both records illustrate how far rock itself has come since 1970, when krautrock was unknown to most Americans, and Miles Davis created jazz-rock fusion that was more complex than John Fahey's impressionistic musings.

Born in Philadelphia in 1977, Gunn attended Temple University before moving to Brooklyn in 2001. He has played with indie rocker Kurt Vile and prog rockers GHQ, and released the 2009 full-length Boerum Palace, which featured Gunn's blues extrapolations. Recorded with drummer John Truscinski and bassist Justin Tripp, Time Off reveals Gunn as a blues-influenced songwriter specializing in repetitive pentatonic riffs.

"For the Time Off album, we had been playing those songs for about a year before we went into the studio," Gunn tells the Scene from his Brooklyn home. "The songs were streamlined, and the interplay was always very loose. We kept it in a bit of a jazz tradition, where there are elements of improvisation, and the songs morphed into their own being."

Gunn's music features lyrics that are sometimes obscure — his vocals are buried in Time Off's mix — but Tyler's Lost Colony dispenses with words altogether. Having played with such acclaimed songwriters as Lambchop leader Kurt Wagner, Tyler has a feel for song form, but Lost Colony grafts motorik rhythms onto structures that eschew complicated chord changes. Tyler recorded Lost Colony with JEFF the Brotherhood drummer Jamin Orrall, Natural Child and Lylas pedal steel player Luke Schneider and bassist Reece Lazarus, who books acts into Tyler's club, The Stone Fox.

"Mainly, I wanted to document that band that had been playing together, really, for less than a year," Tyler says. "We got together to play Bonnaroo — they booked me last year, but weren't gonna book me as a solo act. Playing with them, it got me re-energized about listening to certain kinds of music, like, you know, The Dead, Barefoot Jerry, Fairport Convention's instrumental stuff."

Lost Colony finds the band rocking through a series of tense grooves. "Whole New Dude" begins with a rubato section before moving into 5/4 time. After seven minutes, the band briefly drops out, and the composition ends in 4/4. Similarly, "We Can't Go Home Again" plays games with pop-song form before switching to a triplet-accented shuffle groove.

" 'Whole New Dude' is a pretty old song that I actually recorded when I was recording as The Paper Hats," Tyler says. "It was very directly inspired by Led Zeppelin IV's vibe, and also Sun City Girls, and that's probably not apparent in the way that it came out, but I knew that song would sound good with a band."

Tyler & Co. end Lost Colony with a version of Neu! guitarist Michael Rother's "Karussell" that's the modern equivalent of Area Code 615's 1969 cover of Mason Williams' "Classical Gas." The difference between the two tracks is more than a matter of time — in 1969, the rock scene was far more provincial than it is today, and Tyler's new music reflects a certain cosmopolitanism. As both musicians tell me, Tyler and Gunn are friends whose shared bill at The Stone Fox should reveal the similarities and differences in their approaches to the post-Takoma Records, post-Fahey mode they have absorbed.

"Neither one of us were interested in trying to be purely in this tradition of the Takoma thing," Tyler says. "I just don't feel comfortable with it, and it's also not the way I think, musically. It's one element of what people do."


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