Cuneiform Records is celebrating a well-earned 30th anniversary. Since 1984, the Washington, D.C. label has achieved worldwide recognition for championing the unrecognized. The roster prizes quality over novelty, innovation over the status quo. The musicians they produce don’t just challenge boundaries, but destroy them. It is rare to find so much riveting improvised or otherwise experimental work in one place; the New Sound is here, all of it, and whatever your imagination is craving you can probably find something to sate it.
Jonathan Badger is a newcomer to Cuneiform, but he already seems to fit right in.
Deftly picked acoustic figurines dance about the stage on opener ‘St. Lucy’s Day’, crystal tones intruding periodically to hold the audience’s attention until digital tones descend like a UFO landing. What follows bears little resemblance, and each track carries enough originality to warrant the Cuneiform seal of approval. Badger and associates appear to have swallowed a record store, resulting in a collision of genres and forms.
From the urgency of the second track’s coda to the brief soundscapes of the wonderfully titled ‘It came down from the night and stood on the porch until I invited it in for tea’ (an unpublished Lovecraft tale if ever there was one), the tracks here all seem to chart a languid battle between digital and organic instrumentation. Not to say there’s necessarily a sense of narrative throughout; occassionally the songs sound like someone shouted “Cut!” a bit too hastily, and we veer between ideas wildly as the album progresses. Indeed, aside from a fairly consistent mood the main thing that unites all these tracks is their diversity.
Preview track ‘Nimbus’ seems to be the most representative piece, placed squarely in the centre of the record and surprising with a brief, unreprised lyrical passage at the end (the titular Verse?). The following song begins life as a murky electronic soundscape, developing slowly and fleshed out with dirty blues guitar, human beatboxing and ominous chords – it’s the first time, save for ‘The Bear’, that the record seems to do more than meditate upon its aesthetic choices, indicating an intention to attack. ‘Limbec’ suggests that if the pieces here are intended to soundtrack anything it’s a leisurely stroll through Sufjan Stevens’ dreaming brain. With its brass and glitched percussion, it recalls some of the more ambitious passages from Age of Adz – albeit with a more palatable pace of confluence between its different elements than on Sufjan’s record.
On first listen, sequencing decisions seem to be made for the shuffle generation, anticipating the eventual loss of continuity. Sometimes, movements even within the same song take the kind of U-turn that makes you wonder whether you sat on the skip button by mistake. This criticism is minor, and one which decreases in importance on repeated listens. In and of themselves, the tracks are gems, objects of wonder – islands full of exotic flora and fauna.
The sheer volume of ideas and instruments explored here defy categorization. The ease with which these elements land gives the whole record an air of gentle peregrination rather than manic morning commute. Put simply, Badger isn’t trying too hard to be clever or experimental – Verse progresses at a natural tempo, which suggests that the creative process was driven by curiosity rather than willful obscurity. The freedom to work in such a manner is an enviable one; to be able to call upon such a wide variety of sounds, both from your own hands and from others, is as invigorating as it sounds. Verse is an excursion worth your attention. (Wesley Freeman-Smith)