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Mendoza Hoff Revels
Echolocation Sean Kitching , October 12th, 2023 08:11

The incendiary debut album from guitarist Ava Mendoza and bassist Devin Hoff (with James Brandon Lewis on tenor sax and Ches Smith on drums) evokes a fusion of Sonny Sharrock and Sonic Youth, or Black Flag and Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time, finds Sean Kitching

Speaking of the intention behind his late 90s band, The Monsoon Bassoon, Kavus Torabi (later of Cardiacs, Guapo, Knifeworld, The Utopia Strong and Gong) once said that they were aiming for “a union of Henry Cow and Sonic Youth”. That statement stuck in my mind all these years, partly because it was such an obviously great idea, but also because not many bands, before or since, have successfully attempted such a melding of guitar-based power, with the swing of jazz, the detail of prog and the intricacies of chamber music. The same phrase immediately came to mind the first time I listened to Echolocation, although more specifically along the lines of Sonny Sharrock’s final album Ask the Ages colliding with Sonic Youth, or even at times jamming with the raw power of The Stooges. Music journalists, an excitable lot, are often rightly accused of the overuse of hyperbole. Sometimes, however, the hyperbole is justified.

Brooklyn-based guitarist, Ava Mendoza, has been making fascinating music for the past decade and-a-half, both with her own group, Unnatural Ways, and in collaboration with a host of cult musicians, including Matana Roberts, Fred Frith, Negativland and Violent Femmes. In 2021, she was part of the trio that released Mayan Space Station with William Parker and Gerald Cleaver (a personal favourite, which featured in the Quietus’ best albums of the year chart). On this release, she shares composing duties with bassist Devin Hoff, who has worked with the likes of Nels Cline, Sharon Van Etten, Xiu Xiu and Cibo Matto. The pair are ably backed by James Brandon Lewis on tenor saxophone (whose own recent releases have been wonderful in their own right) and the versatile Ches Smith, who has played with such underground sonic luminaries as John Zorn, Secret Chiefs 3, Tim Berne and Marc Ribot.

As interesting a proposition as this band appears on paper, the reality is even more exciting. Mendoza is a hugely talented guitarist with many different facets to her sound. Capable of shredding with the best of them, her background in classical, acoustic and fingerstyle technique means she isn’t simply defined by her noise making capability. Often very capable guitarists playing in an improv setting tend to get stuck in a loop of escalating shredding, and whilst this can be exciting in a visceral sense, particularly in a live environment, such sustained velocity runs the risk of becoming mostly surface noise after a time. Mendoza understands this, and both her and Hoff’s compositions offer a variety of textures and moods, without sacrificing their inherent power.

Opener ‘Discaluculia’ caught the ear of Quietus editor John Doran recently, when he chose it as a track of the month for September, describing it as summoning the “the various spirits of Slayer, Death and Sonny Sharrock”. It’s a fantastic opening track, which nevertheless doesn’t really set the tone for the rest of the album. After such full-on riffing, title track ‘Echolocation’ takes a more spacey route with long sustains of guitar and James Brandon Lewis’ emotive and lyrical sax recalling Pharoah Sanders work on Ask the Ages. ‘Interwhining’ is even better still, an almost funk-like, choppy rhythm running throughout, Mendoza inscribing fuzzy arabesques over Smith’s powerful drumming and James Brandon Lewis’ transcendent sax blurts. The track takes its time to escalate into more chaotic territory and is all the more powerful for doing so. ‘Diablada’, with its Secret Chiefs 3-like opening and ‘The Stumble’, with its deceptively mellow beginning of resonating bass and closer ‘Ten Forward’ are also potential highlights. Really though, there isn’t a dull moment on this release and both its immediate surface and its immersive depths, which only become apparent with subsequent listens, offer a wealth of delights for anyone willing to spend some time with it.