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Circular Time Joseph Burnett , December 3rd, 2015 09:53

For the past decade or so, maybe more, Ramleh on record has been, essentially, a power electronics outfit. The duo includes founder Gary Mundy (also the man behind Broken Flag records and erstwhile occasional member of Skullflower), and longtime ally Anthony diFranco, who use battered electronic devices to build up walls of ear-shattering noise, along the way taking the Whitehouse template and finding its inner psychedelia. Fans of the band, and those fortunate to see Ramleh live in the years since 2009's Valediction will testify, however, that there are, in fact, two versions of the band: the PE one, and a much more rock-focused incarnation featuring Breathless' Martyn Watts on drums. Circular Time is a much-overdue chance for that second iteration to showcase its potency in the studio, as it has done on many occasion on stages across the globe. And the "rock" Ramleh, well, fucking rocks. Seems it doesn't matter if they're using noise generators or guitars, these guys can throw up a wall of sound like no other.

All of which makes the strummed acoustic guitar that opens the album on 'Re-entry', a startlingly mellow curveball, and for a minute upon listening, I harbour concerns that Circular Time is going to be more 'Teen Age Riot' than all-out assault. There's of course nothing wrong with Sonic Youth, even their more commercial side, but as loud or destructured as they could be, they never laid a glove on Ramleh. One can almost picture a wolfish grin on Gary Mundy's face as he drops the acoustic after about 40 seconds and dropkicks it into an inferno of molten, feedback-drenched electric mess. In the process he heralds the truth behind that little joke: this is Ramleh at their most ferociously hard-rocking. Martyn Watts powers 'Re-entry' forward with a relentless, repetitive barrage of snare clatters whilst Mundy and Anthony diFranco dual with atavistic ferocity, the former's guitar screaming like a banshee whilst the latter ploughs a trench-like furrow with his bass. Somewhere in the grasp of this maelstrom are vocals, too, but they're just another noise generator swirling around this hurricane of sound (for the record, though, they're typically fatalistic: "Destroy history/destroy time/the past has no dominion/in the world beyond". For such a mellow guy, Gary Mundy's lyrics consistently overflow with doubt and misery).

'Re-entry' is both a template and a red herring for what follows over nearly two hours of Circular Time. A template in that this is music played at maximum volume, the kind of relentless cascade of hard-heavy rock that would make Acid Mothers Temple fans swoon. But for the all the hard-hitting nature of this particular beast, it's also remarkably nuanced, varied and, after a fashion, subtle. I spent the first few listens trying to pin-point the trio's influences as one track bled fitfully into another. In an interview I did with them for this website, diFranco mentioned how they and the Skullflower gang were huge Butthole Surfers fans, and you can certainly hear traces of the San Antonio band in songs like 'The March' and 'American Womanhood'. But equally, Ramleh's DNA is too elastic to pin on one influence, and from the thrashing Hawkwind-esque whirlwind of 'Incubator', to the mystical synth-heavy psych of 'Liberty Bell', with its marvelous echoes of Ash Ra Tempel (especially in Watts' astounding Klaus Schulze-like drumming) and ghostly chorus, these influences slip and slide in and out of focus, boiling together in a cauldron that, ultimately is all Ramleh.

Trying to find parallels in other musicians' work is therefore both unfair and counter-productive, and what's most clear on Circular Time is just how good all three members of Ramleh are. I've already mentioned Watts excellent, sprawling technique on 'Liberty Bell' and 'Re-entry', but he's equally sturdy as the Jaki Liebezeit-esque metronome on 'The Tower', which also showcases diFranco's superlative bass-playing. The man is not content to be the rock under Gary Mundy's guitar-playing, instead pushing his bass forward and playing it like a lead instrument. The best comparison I can think for such an approach is Jack Casady of Jefferson Airplane (circa Bless Its Pointed Little Head, his shining moment), and there's not much greater praise for a bassist than that. Mundy, meanwhile, is a dexterous and versatile guitarist, equally happy spinning crystalline gossamer solos that climb skywards (the amazing 15-minute epic 'Flamen Dialis' is a particular showcase) as he is in unloading a deluge of feedback and sculpting it into something approaching riffs and melody. Again, picking a definite style proves elusive, as he navigates a weird path between Michael Karoli, the guys from Factrix and Keith Levene and ends up being Gary Mundy, plain and simple and unique.

Circular Time is a feast of a reward for those who have been waiting for this incarnation of Ramleh to get its moment in the sun: a wild, celebratory, unrelenting epic of an album that at times, notably on the industrial slab of impassive drone 'Weird Tyranny' (ironically closer in style to Valediction-era duo Ramleh, with Watts absent) and the elegiac closing masterpiece 'Never Returner' reaches rarely-paralleled heights of what Gary Mundy once referred to as "bleak psychedelia". A number of great recent bands have delivered great rewards on the promise set out by Hawkwind and their ilk, from Teeth Of The Sea to Residual Echoes via Mainliner and The Heads, but Ramleh have been doing it for over thirty years in one form or another, and doing it better than all.