Eric Gorfain, the arranger and founder of The Section Quartet, has lived a busy and star-studded few decades behind his violin. Between his symphonic takes on Radiohead, collaborations with Queens of The Stone Age and Taylor Swift, and tours with Jimmy Page, Gorfain has had little time to settle down and revisit the quietude of his formative years as a music student in Japan. However, off the heels of recent studio work for Weyes Blood, Jenny Lewis, and a handful of 2019 records, his solo project tone-cluster marks a turn towards simplicity and authorial control. KYO SHU sees Gorfain embracing amplified production and an array of pedals to bolster the relative vulnerability of one single, cutting instrument.
The Japanese title roughly translates to “reminiscence” of the most nostalgic variation. Gorfain’s original intention was to recall and translate memories of his time spent in Japan, describing individual tracks with acute vignettes that might contain specific, codified meanings. Every song title is paired in both Japanese and English, offering a broken window into Gorfain’s experience. The audio translation gives us glimpses into “Midnight Sand Dunes” and “Onsen In The Snow” through aching, distorted swells. Everything is longingly cinematic and nebulous, giving a “why not” attitude towards locational signification. It’s easy to get caught up in the droning arrangements and find oneself placed in expansive Japanese deserts.
For our current situation of closed borders and claustrophobia, KYO SHU also presents buoyant escapism without lofty conceptual framework. The opening looped arpeggio of “Mayonaka Sakkyu (Midnight Sand Dunes)” is dryly pleasant and ethereal. An amplified violin eventually swoops in with glacial improvisations that add to the overarching calm. “Saishu Densha (Last Train)” closes the album with plucked murmurs that draw out like end credits in lowercase. “Kon Ran (Chaos)” hints at its namesake with unidentifiable percussive rumbling and dissonant, high-pitched chords, yet even here there is an uncomplicated mellowness that invites long, deep breaths.
The short project (five tracks with a 35 minute runtime) gestures at a moment in time at a specific place, but it resonates as a reprieve from daily bustle and restlessness. Gorfain’s autumnal soundscapes anticipate the uncertain coming months with a subdued hopefulness. For such an accomplished studio musician, Gorfain shows newfound promise with tone-cluster as a retreat from the immensity of collaboration. It culminates as a “stepping back” moment of hushed thoughtfulness, something we could all use (and appreciate) now more than ever. (Josh Hughes)