Available on: Hot Charity / XL LP
Comparable in unfamiliar scope to Vincent Gallo’s seminal Warp Records release When, but markedly better for the lack of inescapable context that surrounds Gallo’s divisive character, Willis Earl Beal’s Acousmatic Sorcery is a fantastically odd debut record emerging in a badland of scepticism.
To head predictability off at the pass, let us first tick off the issues that will probably be covered by pretty much everyone reviewing Beal’s debut (FACT included): he is an “outsider” musician recording to cassette, so it’s pretty “lo fi”; he sounds similar to Tom Waits, Captain Beefheart, Otis Redding, Leadbelly, Jandek, and plenty of other manic blues, soul and R&B musicians; journalistic cynicism would suggest there is potential for this to ultimately be a vanity project for XL Records (Acousmatic Sorcery being released by its imprint Hot Charity).
It is still worth mentioning all of these points, however, both for accuracy’s sake, but also because it shows that people already seem to care about Beal. And, with such deranged talent on display, they should; Acousmatic Sorcery is an often humorous, often heartfelt, often hedonistically abstract collection of simple songs. While not actually creating acousmatic music as defined in the academic sense, this album is surprising for revelling in uncontrolled micro-tonality, detuned instruments used to purposefully create strident dissonance throughout the record. From the clashing, high register opening instrumental ‘Nepenenoyka’ onwards it is quite clear that Beal and micro-tonal hobo composer Harry Partch would probably have had a lot to talk about.
The “anti-folk” qualities are also all prevalent too, the simply-strummed guitar and vocal songs twisted into something more visceral through non-standard tuning. ‘Bright Copper Noon’ rings with suggestion, perhaps sharply warping a reference to the Confederate States of America anthem (or, much like The Wire’s Omar Little with his whistling, ‘The Hunter In The Dell’), and ‘Sambo Joe From The Rainbow’ incorporates flute with its wavy, triple-time steel string guitar to add a pioneer delicacy.
However, there are plenty of other approaches on Acousmatic Sorcery, ‘Swing On Low’ cutting high frequency spills all over its angular funk. Willis’ voice happily springs around the Primus-like riff as quickly-delivered melodic speech, the chorus breaking out into wryly joyous spiritual soul. Much of the album’s appeal is exuded through Beal’s superbly rough voice being shoved and coaxed into different characters. ‘Take Me Away’ and the untitled secret track after ‘Angel Chorus’ are deliciously raw foulness; ‘Evening’s Kiss’ is a simple elegy, Beal’s voice now a calm nasal falsetto for its sing-song melody; ‘Ghost Robot’ features ropey rapping; ‘Cosmic Queries’ is a fiery bitterness through Scott-Heron-like spoken word; ‘Away My Silent Lover’ a strained soulful number, genuinely painful to listen to in places.The lyrics too are wonderful, constantly mixing plenty of onomatopeia and vivid, dreamlike imagery, the scenarios balancing drunken party high, relaxed nightmares and half-apathetic heartbreak.
Acousmatic Sorcery’s imperfections are unapologetic and unconcerned, largely stamping all over any chances of bringing the overall experience down. The rare appearance of someone doing so with engaging results is worth investing in as a listener; this album shows that Beal could easily create a legacy for himself every bit as influential and important as his references, given the right opportunities.