ALEX ARCHIBALD: EARLY SUBURBAN TERRORISM (2015, SELF-RELEASED)
This review originally appeared at North Country Primitive in April 2016
Early Suburban Terrorism, available digitally via Bandcamp, is the third self-released album by Vancouver-based guitarist Alex Archibald and an early contender for best album title of the year. This review is a bit of a belated effort, insofar as the album came out at the back end of 2015. However, as I’ve only just got round to listening to it, you’ll have to bear with my somewhat fluid concept of time.
Alex sets his stall out with a strong opening title track: it’s a melodic, upbeat piece with a rolling, propulsive gait, very much in debt to the American Primitive tradition, but with its own character to the fore. It’s followed by the first of several more reflective pieces, View West from the Rocky Mountains Foothills, Quentin’s Ranch, Southern Alberta, Mid March, which as the title suggests, is strongly steeped in a sense of place. This tune billows - conjuring moving clouds in wide-open skies - and is bookended by some lovely use of harmonics.
The Trouble with Tree Time starts off like it intends to homage Charles Mingus, a theme briefly returned to in the outro. One minute in, the style abruptly changes and it inexplicably starts to remind me of acoustic Led Zeppelin. I have no clear evidence as to why the 70s rock gods spring to mind, but I do know that this is a far from bad thing. I picked up a similarly Zeppelin-esque vibe on Night Pyres, a tune that is simultaneously reflective and irrepressible, bubbling over with a quiet ecstasy. Clocking in at five and a half minutes, this is the longest track on the album and gives Alex time to stretch out. These are two of my favourite tracks on the album, hinting as they do at rural psychedelia.
Another change of mood comes on Queequeg in his Coffin, which invents a new variation on the genre - Canadian Primitive, anyone? There are more endless vistas; and whilst the tune has a sense of forward motion, there is no urgency, no hurry. There’s something very confident and emphatic about Alex’s playing here, like he knows exactly what he wants to say and is at pains to communicate it clearly. It precedes the most delicate, charming piece on the album, the beautiful Chickens to Kendra. Whilst the folk influences on this tune are almost entirely absent, it is still bucolic, hinting at an old world, European ambience - all slow moving rivers and weeping willows
The real treat for me comes with the three banjo tunes. Dry Leaf into the Sea throws away the banjo picker’s rule book. Its a raga-like, keening piece - if a banjo can be said to keen - that’s crying out for tabla accompaniment. At a mere two minutes, it’s all over far too quickly. From a Faerie’s Funeral continues to demonstrate Alex’s strengths on the instrument: it’s more traditional sounding, but expectations are neatly derailed by a persistently clanging drone. Album closer, Ragman on the Front Porch, sounds like it’s grown out of an old folk melody: it’s very Harry Smith, but is lifted from pastiche by some superb use of banjo harmonics. It’s a fittingly exuberant ending to the album.
On a couple of tracks Alex might be said to drift a little close to generic American Primitivism, but this is a minor quibble, as even then he acquits himself just fine. Early Suburban Terrorism is at its best when Alex slows it down a little and allows himself more space. There’s some great playing, backed up by a good ear for a melody and a restless, exploratory inventiveness. It leaves me wanting to hear more - and particularly to hear more of his extraordinary way with a banjo.