Review: Billington/Shippy/Wyche

Drummer Ben Baker Billington and guitarists Mark Shippy and Daniel Wyche unite for their first recording: a 47-minute, ripping, hypnotic improvisation in three parts, released last year on Austin-based record label and multimedia imprint, Astral Spirits. Billington, Shippy, and Wyche are all heavy-hitters in Chicago experimental and DIY music. Billington drums with ONO, the Industrial legends of the Midwest, who reunited after a multi-decade hiatus four years ago, as well as Tiger Hatchery, ADT, plus his solo project Quicksails. Shippy lent his signature sometimes-grating-and-frenzied, sometimes-melodic-and-surprisingly-rocking ever unpredictable guitar playing to Shorty, then the infamous noise-group U.S. Maple, which morphed into Miracle Condition, and now plays in Invisible Things, alongside drummer Jim Sykes. Wyche regularly performs solo and in collaboration, his work centering around prepared guitar and extended technique. Billington and Wyche also curate and promote some of Chicago’s best (and noisiest) experimental shows.

The trio comes together to compose the aural equivalent of an optical illusion, a dizzying duality of feet-stay-in-one-place-while-the-head-spins-around movement and non-movement that plays a trick on the ears, simultaneously disorienting, magnetic, and incredibly hypnotic. The individual pieces and the record as a whole mirror the sensation of struggling to move in pain, feeling every inch as if it were a mile. Each track is a single, broad, sweeping gesture comprised of minute, frenzied movements. The action and energy of each piece is manifested in manipulation and development of dynamic extremes, time feel, and the expansion and contraction of tone, each instrumentalist moving between full, expanded use of his entire instrument and controlled and caged use of select voices within it. These elements are feverishly and minutely woven together to establish minimal, gentle harmonic structures. There’s something excruciatingly yet deliciously static about this. The ultimate outcome is a bit like looking closely at a tapestry: a circuit of a thousand, furious little threads, each one throbbing like veins with the weight of the focus and physical labor that drew them together, all merged within a fixed, rigid and beautifully stark composition.

Billington opens the record with an exclamatory clanging. There’s an abruptness to his entrance that reflects the feeling of entering a room in the middle of someone’s long, impassioned diatribe. His babbling cascades across the hardware, and the cymbals never pause, only billow and grow, spilling gradually but steadily into the snare and toms and drawing forward the guitars, which rise sinisterly out of the cymbal’s resonance in a hazy, distorted wash, barely distinguishable from one another, and linger like a fog. Each player hovers and expands in his place: the guitars’ sawing and grinding swells, coaxed along by the heaving, intensifying drums, into a loud, harsh groan, that finally bursts, breaking into an achingly pretty, oscillating harmony that bobs to the surface for a few deep, meaningful breaths before capsizing and being swallowed back by the gaping, torn, and thunderous distortion that bore it. This harmony rears its head repeatedly, drawn forward when the dynamics, rhythm, and tone inevitably boil into their extremes. The promise of it returning and evolving tempts the listener along throughout, though ultimately it stays unchanged, letting the energy rage and die down around it. Only at the end of the record is it clear that, despite the sense of a journey, this single gesture – a simple oscillation between two chords – has only barely begun to unfold. Billington, Shippy, and Wyche align to make a beautiful meditation on action and inaction.

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