From the early notes of “Failed Celestial Creatures” – the meditative, 20-minute-long title track to the unanticipated debut collaboration between guitar-composer David Grubbs and Japanese musician Taku Unami, out Friday via Empty Editions – you get the sense you’re listening to something special. While Unami paints with fuzzy clouds of electronic sound, Grubbs repeats wonderfully dirge-like, circular refrains on undistorted electric guitar; the piece, which has an amazing sense of breadth/breath, softly inhales and exhales. At its finest, the work is evocative of Grubbs’ collaboration with the master Loren Connors, and to compare something to a gem like their Arborvitae says a lot.

That lengthy track, unfortunately, gets a little muddied and lost in its final quarter as distortion enters the picture but, even then, it radiates an almost-unnerving calm. Improvised and pseudo-improvised music, which this Kyoto-recorded material clearly elicits, can have a kind of rawness and unexpectedness to it – it’s part of what makes being witness to it so magical – and Grubbs and Unami toy with this notion, citing in the text Japanese absurdist references to ritual sacrifices. Maybe I lean literalist here, but I experience more of a journey where you don’t know what’s lurking around the next river-bend. (Or not.) On Failed Celestial Creatures, Grubbs and Unami seem peculiarly in control, playing off each other’s fragile string-bending to the point where everything sounds carefully composed – in several senses of the word.

The rest of the record is good, has its moments, of course, but does not match the grand gestures of the opener. The four-song “Threadbare” suite is beautific and lulling, in a sparse, almost dream-seductive kind of way. But, sadly, on “The Forest Dictation,” Grubbs makes his points of reference – the tiger imagery from Nakajima’s The Moon Over The Mountain – a little too clear and ends up, at least in terms of the record’s only lyrics/vocals, sounding a bit like an impression of himself.

The distractions, in the end, though, are few and far between. For a debut, these two seem surprisingly comfortable in and complementing each other’s skins and fans, especially, of Grubbs gems like Banana Cabbage, Potato Lettuce, Onion Orange will be rightly impressed.

About the Author

Justin Vellucci

Justin Vellucci is a former staffer at Punk Planet and Delusions of Adequacy. His music writing has appeared in national magazines like American Songwriter and PopMatters, alt-weeklies such as Brooklyn Rail, Pittsburgh CityPaper, and San Diego CityBeat, blogs Swordfish and Linoleum, and the Gannett publication Jetty. He lives in Pittsburgh.

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