Album Appreciations: John Dwyer Lockdown Albums

The phrase ”the hardest working person in show business” is a difficult one to apportion, especially in our current times of uncertainty and disruption… but if there was a shortlist for such a epithet… then John Dwyer would surely be a candidate. I long ago stopped trying to keep up with his Thee Oh Sees/ Oh Sees/ OCS etc… releases, although I will go and see them live every time they come round… such are their high-energy and visceral performances.

However, as we know, those performances were not possible for eighteen months or so… which left someone as prolific as Dwyer at something of a loose end. We began to see the fruits of this at the end of last year with his ‘Bent Arcana’ release… an album that sneaked into my ’Essential’ list for 2020 (I only picked it up when I went through a few other ’best of year’ lists)… and represented what looked at the time like a singular excursion into jazz and improvisation, away from the feverish garage of many of his other projects.

With the hindsight of another year, however, that excursion is beginning to look like a more coherent series of releases… at least in terms of the general vibe, with a further four albums coming out this year which, while not being identical in either their approach or personnel, do have a vibe about them which would make a very handsome box set when all put together…

According to my calculations a total of fourteen musicians worked on the sessions that resulted in this five albums (‘Bent Arcana’, ‘Witch Egg’, ‘Endless Garbage’, ‘Moon Drenched’, and ‘Gong Splat’) with Brad Caulkins and Tom Dolas of the Oh Sees appearing on all but the most recent, ‘Gong Splat’. Bent Arcana sees largely the same line up as Moon Drenched, while Greg Coates appears with his stand-up bass on the other three. In the end I had to do a little table just to get this clear in my mind… but have a look on Dwyer’s bandcamp page if you want to know more about the personnel on each release.

As to the albums themselves their improvisational/ jam feel means that each is very much going to be into the ear of the listener. However, while you might expect the similar line-ups on ‘Bent Arcana’ and ’Moon Drenched’ to deliver something broadly similar, even this is not the case with a smooth and laid-back jazz-rich set of tunes on the former, while the latter is more guitar-based with a subsequent rawer feel than its predecessor… and while these are generalisations they do point to the fact that each of these releases are very much albums in their own right rather than a single project.

Elsewhere ’Witch Egg’ is potentially my favourite… it’s a dense and occasionally unfathomable journey through a stunning variety of styles and genre where such as free jazz and motorik can work weirdly together… mixed in the sort of melting pot that perhaps only the turmoil of the last few years can make sense of… our lives have been turned upside down and we come to see things from different angles…

This is something that is particularly challenged by ’Endless Garbage’, which is definitely the most ’out there’ of these albums… it is free-improvisation taken to its most fragmented outpost, and perhaps beyond accessibility for many. It is certainly challenging and frankly requires a concerted effort from the listener to latch onto anything here… and when you do there is a good chance that you might be quickly knocked off again… from my point of view I am glad that it is there because it represents something of a ’bookend’ to the series… and to my mind certainly burnishes Dwyer’s reputation as a multi-faceted musician… someone for whom eclecticism is a way of life.

Which brings me to ‘Gong Splat’ which, from the release notes, seems to suggest is the last of the series. In many ways it lies in the middle of these recordings taking cues from the other four in many ways… maybe it’s because I’ve listened to them in order, but there certainly seems to be something of the others in this one… and maybe that’s the point, here we have five quite different albums with a multitude of different musicians all of which exist in a sort latticed matrix with Dwyer as the single point at the centre. All I can say in summary is that separately they are all worthy of your time… but collectively they represent a remarkable achievement not withstanding the fact that the musicians all recorded these remotely… but when you take that into account, well… just… wow!



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