Review of Suffuse by Roy Montgomery

‘Suffuse’ – Roy Montgomery – Grapefruit Records – 2018

 I first heard Roy Montgomery’s playing on the Flying Saucer Attack 1996 EP that contained the track ‘And Goodbye’ – a live track recorded on a Dictaphone, so the sleeve notes told me. Different, I thought. Montgomery’s raga-like chorus-rich slow strums were playing second fiddle to the shimmer of fsa’s otherworldly swirls and – later – were slightly hidden behind the fsa cymbal racket. Much more indicative of Montgomery’s work was his contribution to the ‘Harmony of the Spheres’ collection (Drunken Fish Records, 1996) – the track ‘Fantasia on a Theme by Sandy Bull’; if you haven’t heard that track, I’ll let you discover that for yourself: it is perfect example of what can be achieved with one guitar and some vision and it completely puts into the shade the cliché-heavy guitar playing of not only its time (just remember what was pumping out of stereos and radios in 1996) but also virtually all guitar music now.

I still play Montgomery’s mammoth ‘R M H Q: Headquarters’ from 2016, but it lacked the brio of ‘Fantasia on a Theme by Sandy Bull’. Some of the tracks on it felt like they are actively slowing down under the weight of the pedals used in their construction. The same cannot be said of Montgomery’s most recent album: ‘Suffuse’ which came out last year. The inspired move here was to invite vocal contributions from six female singers. The six songs across both sides of ‘Suffuse’ are compellingly different. The first track (‘Apparition’ – although almost any of the tracks could have been called this) is sung by Circuit Des Yeux’s Haley Fohr and the overall effect is like nothing I have heard this year: it is both oneiric and alien – now that’s not an easy thing to pull off without sounding silly. The second track (‘Rain Bird’) veers more towards its other collaborator, She Keeps Bees, at its twanging heart. All of the first side has lyrics written by Montgomery – and these are interesting and enthralling things on their own, but the subsequent songs are where the album marks clear distance between itself and other vague wanderers in clueless ambience. The next two contributions, by Katie Von Schleicher (‘Outside Love Ballad No. 1’) and Purple Pilgrims (‘Mirage’) demonstrate a pushing against the constraints of the songs they are contained in – other vocal lines join in with the miasma of guitar parts which imbues the songs with a breathing quality; the frequencies are no longer just those of sorrowful, blurred resonating strings. And none of these sung parts are winsome or fey – lesser collaborators might have tempted to let the material overwhelm them.

It is the last two tracks that really have me. ‘Sigma Octantis’ features Julianna Barwick’s vocals; here is where the experiment has lift-off. Barwick’s trademark loops (or perhaps faux-loops) and layering of vocals is a perfect match for Montgomery’s woven chord mesh, because it is as complex and subtle; the beauty lies in the beauty of the harmonies and the order that can be heard and that which is implied by the vocal lines. As for words… they take a running jump. You don’t need them when breath and chord structures can emote so clearly. Julianna Barwick’s albums are always very good, but special mention – if you haven’t heard them – should go to 2011’s ‘The Magic Place’ and 2013’s ‘Nepenthe’. Here she finds someone who deals in complexity as much as her; she isn’t singing the song, per se; it’s as if she is rearranging it whilst it is being sung.

Last track ‘Landfall’ maintains the quality, whilst also upping the ante in terms of experiment. Here the singer is Liz Harris, better known as Grouper. Grouper already released one of the best albums of 2018 in ‘Grid of Points’ – something so fragile and beautiful that it would break it to try and put it into words, like trying to dissect a snowflake or draw seeds blown by the wind. The track ‘Landfall’ here – similarly to that album – also teases at the edges of what ‘song’ is, but again you don’t need a slavish lyric sheet (or these days a lazy google search) to understand the emotions at play. Montgomery’s structures again allow Harris’/Grouper’s layered vocals to thread themselves into the fabric of the music, rather than being forced to sit on top of it.

In short, ‘Suffuse’ is a compelling record showcasing experiment and substance.