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Cul de Sac



Cul de Sac is a Boston-based group of critically acclaimed practitioners of unusual instrumental music who draw inspiration from the incantatory rhythms of Indian ragas, the complexities of avant-garde folk finger-picking, the cerebral excesses of '70s prog, the bouncy reverb of surf rock, and the energy of experimental music. Their exercises are far from academic, however; unlike a hell of a lot of rock-based instrumental music, Cul de Sac is fun and interesting to listen to, as the talented quartet is able to put a different twist on the now-distinctive Cul de Sac sound with each and every new composition (and indeed, often with new renditions of the same composition).

The history of Cul de Sac commenced in late 1990, when guitarist Glenn Jones convinced ex-The Girls multi-instrumentalist Robin Amos, filmmaker and neophyte bassist Chris Fujiwara (later replaced by Michael Bloom), and drummer Chris Guttmacher (later replaced by Jon Proudman), to join him in making weird but compelling noise tapestries. The basic conceit was to marry Jones's unique and melodic Fahey-esque guitar style with Amos's arresting brew of synthesizer sounds, over a bed of heady rhythms. This formula turned out to work rather well, providing a flexible skeleton on which the group could build in any number of directions. Dazzled by the Middle Eastern melodies and atmospheric Krautrock-inspired dementia of early Cul de Sac albums like Ecim (1992), I Don't Want To Go to Bed (1995), critics immediately lavished praise on the group for their unpredictable mix of influences and textures, though often (much to the band's dismay) consigning them to the post-rock camp, that nebulous category invented in the early '90s by Simon Reynolds to describe music that defies description, a category for which Cul de Sac became an unwilling poster child.

After a third album, China Gate (1996), which consolidated the group's efforts to date, Cul de Sac embarked on the difficult task of making a record with the late John Fahey, the cult experimental acoustic music pioneer. Though it was fraught with disagreements between Fahey and the band, and among the band members themselves, the collaboration eventually bore fruit in the form of The Ephiphany of Glenn Jones (1997). For their fifth LP, Cul de Sac took things a step beyond with the help of a homemade instrument called the Contraption designed by Jones, a Hawaiian lap-steel played with kitchen utensils. The tour de force Crashes to Light, Minutes to Its Fall (1999) was a mesmeric slew of styles that went everywhere from the lush Greek music of Manos Hadjidakis (Jones also regularly employs a bouzouki) to the tongue-in-cheek surf guitar figures of Link Wray to the gothic, collapsed blues of Loren MazzaCane Connors to the hallucinogenic haze of Ash Ra Tempel to the poignant string compositions of early-century Appalachia.

Around the same time, Cul de Sac played one of the worst live sets of their career, an utterly unremarkable radio performance at Brandeis University -- or so they thought at the time. But when they listened to the tapes some months later, they couldn't believe their ears, because they'd recorded the luminous and magical collection of songs that they would release in early 2002 as Immortality Lessons.

More adventures ensued after the release of that album, including a tour as the backing band for ex-Can vocalist Damo Suzuki and a shift in personnel that saw the arrival of new bassist/violinist Jonathan LaMaster and turntablist/sound generator Jake Trussell. In recording their fifth studio album (their first in four years), the reshaped continued in many ways to follow in the massive footsteps of the late John Fahey -- literally. Inspired by a pair of tape-based pieces they recorded during the Glenn Jones sessions, Cul de Sac approached Death of the Sun by asking each member to choose a recording which would lend emotional resonance to the pieces the band would build atop them. Their choices of samples and field recordings, which range from Peruvian rainforest recrodings to '30s German a capella 78s -- appear throughout the album in the subtlest of ways, underscoring rich melancholic acoustic textures filled with plucked guitars and mournful violins which sometimes bring the band into Dirty Three instrumental territory. Here, thunderous percussion gives the album a tribal, trance feel; there, an electric sitar lends it the flavor of Indian music. Death of the Sun is permeated by an exotic brand of beautiful psychedelia, based much more on world music than the '60s, which makes it feel forward-thinking, vast, generous, and astonishingly beautiful. It may be the group's best album to date.