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Grim Tower
Anarchic Breezes Barnaby Smith , July 2nd, 2013 07:18

Given the nature of what lurks on this first Grim Tower album, one might pause to wonder exactly what imagery Stephen McBean and Imaad Wasif had in mind with that name. All manner of things are suggested by the mystical, mythical and arcane music itself, which while hardly a collection of folk songs, is certainly informed by folk tales. The tower could be Rapunzel's in all its fantastical sublime, or some sun-baked minaret in North Africa, or perhaps most appropriately a Dakhma, or 'tower of silence', a building used in Zoroastrianism as a means to dispose of the dead by leaving them open atop the tower to the elements and scavengers. Anarchic Breezes, full of esoteric decoration, is macabre, but still fascinating.

McBean comes to Grim Tower on a break from both the exceptional Black Mountain and Pink Mountaintops. He is from Vancouver and is known for playing guitar loud and uncompromisingly, with a voice that is limited though perfect for his two other bands. Wasif, of Indian heritage, is best known for playing with Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The Folk Implosion but has also released three solo albums containing a number of breathtaking moments. Slightly waif-like and chiselled, his speciality is largely drone of acoustic psych-folk.

Their partnership makes for an album on one hand floaty and wistful, and on the other, constantly on the verge of manic recklessness. Opener 'Soft Séance' is a fine example, where familiar backward loops recede into a de-tuned acoustic riff that could have been from The Grateful Dead's Aoxomoxoa, only to be overshadowed itself by a rumbling line of fuzz guitar, the whole song being a neat encapsulation of the project, which also features the rhythm section for Los Angeles's Darker My Love.

Wasif, an absorbing, mercurial artist, is responsible for both the best and worst on Anarchic Breezes. His 'Reign Down' is another beautifully surprising thing, beginning as an Appalachian-influenced tune before a couple of strange melodic turns and some more twisted guitar renders it nothing of the sort.

But occasionally Wasif does go a little off course. The album is rather let down by 'All the Beautiful Things', a ballad that sounds hastily written and its message thought out either lazily or while stoned. An uninspired melody and chord sequence is combined with the faux-mystical bleatings of a teenager just returned from a gap year on the sub-continent, or who spent a rainy summer on mushrooms. It's the only real misstep, as otherwise McBean is on hand to reel things in from such indulgence. McBean, whose work with Black Mountain and Pink Mountaintops never veered this far into Siddartha territory, is to be applauded for his allowing his steady gruffness to be applied with utmost delicacy.

It's difficult to maintain any frustration with Wasif though, with his songs of alternative dimensions and the cosmos mostly endearing in their innocence and his irresistible enthusiasm. 'Blue' is a sumptuous example of Wasif's more reined-in output, a song with perhaps the least New-Agey lyrics. One of the best moments comes when they don't open their mouths, on the title track. This atmospheric piece is the best expression of the pair's admitted obsession with experimental acoustic tunings and comes across as a hybrid of 'Dear Prudence' and the early Free instrumental 'Mouthful Of Grass'. The eerie 'Mantis' is another successful use of those drone tunings, again given added energy by the metal-influenced guitar of McBean.

Perhaps it is the vocals that offer the clearest contrast between the two men. McBean's singing is forthright and hard, and much more exposed than with Black Mountain, whereas Wasif has the falsetto and the more flexible tone. Indeed, Anarchic Breezes can be thought of as balanced between McBean's pragmatic, more fatalistic general style and the ethereal musings of his partner. The album does lean more towards Wasif, though McBean's groundedness is key to pretty much everything.

The binding force on the record though, must be death. One track is titled 'Let Death Become Your Comfort'; in the promo video to 'Reign Down' a reaper-like figure lurks in the background, while on 'Hang Me In Heaven' McBean sings of 'playing' with the dead in the afterlife. There is, however, no foreboding sense of doom in their treatment of death, as you might expect from a record that seems to take casual direction from a host of creeds.

Anarchic Breezes is not for everyone – some, including perhaps a few Black Mountain fans, will find it all a bit silly. There is only so much singing about 'portals' one can take. But ultimately this is by far the most unusual and spiritually minded thing McBean has yet put his name to, and his feet being firmly planted on earth allow the more astral meanderings of Wasif more power through restraint. The two make a true yin-yang team.

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