The albums reviewed below demonstrate that guitar playing has outlasted a certain brand of rock posturing. Instead, you can use guitars to create soundscape, to echo from one ear to the other, to enter listeners into aural spaces with stranger, more surprising sounds. You can rock without posturing too. Technology beat ideology.
Mdou Moctar: Ilana (The Creator) (Sahel Sounds)
A popular wedding performer in Niger who has gradually built an American following through his affinity for long instrumental passages reminiscent of jam-band psychedelia, Mdou Moctar’s gift as a guitarist is to rock and mesmerize at once. After several spacey, unaccompanied solo guitar albums, he recruits a full band and gets faster, louder, harsher, more jaunty.
Tuareg guitar music is often compared to blues, with which it shares a tendency toward incantatory repetition and an obsessive, plodding energy whether the music is static or propelled by drums. The dazed, lilting quality is Moctar’s own. Through some combination of quick, delicate guitar playing and a distinctive set of scales whose breezy dissonance I’ve heard only in Saharan music, he generates a blithe uplift, tempered by hints of menace.
Moctar’s guitar tone is both clean and fragile, steeped in flickering electricity; he doesn’t play conventional riffs so much as spiral through arpeggios and land in the right places, getting dizzier with each chord change. The drums, garage whacks, and pretty handclaps are sneakier and more layered, yet the rhythms gallop. The sweet, intermittent sung verses, often call-and-response chants, function as respites, allowing him to breathe before charging back into the windy fray. Through a blur of constant motion, he finds peace in the eye of the hurricane: the purging of nervous energy soothes, cleanses.
“Takamba,” the instrumental track in the album’s middle, is his most joyful guitar flurry, in which the same outbreak of percussive electric notes keeps changing key; “Tarhatazed,” an ominous stomper follows, smoldering in place. In a conventional rock context, the distorted, unaccompanied, rapid-fire rumblings that begin the song would sound grandiose, and in fact they still do as Moctar coaxes out a harrowing, terrible beauty.
Sometimes the songs do blur together — it’s hypnotic like that. He plays with a dogged, unassuming sense of purpose.
Control Top: Covert Contracts (Get Better)
Lest the world’s constrictions, impositions, and background noise drown them out, the year’s loudest new hardcore punk band shouts to be heard. Aiming for a sharp clarity that cuts through nets of amplifier distortion, they crackle and sting.
Control Top’s approach is a familiar one among protest-inclined hardcore bands: over breakneck tempos and guitars scraped raw, Ali Carter howls political slogans, analyses, cries of despair that almost approach the academic, yet feel rooted in everyday frustrations. The album’s immediacy stems from the acuity of the slogans and the serrated teeth of the guitars, whose messy, staticky roar is nonetheless streamlined and condensed into legible, discrete parts. Carter’s low, crunchy bass grinds and rumbles, like a heavy metal grate dragged across the ground, while guitarist Al Creedon plays thick, jittery, stark yet somehow neat power riffs; the clobbering noise they make together would approach the percussive violence, staccato melodies, and textural precision of industrial rock if not for drummer Alex Lichtenauer’s fast, light, blistering touch.
While buoyant and maybe even danceable, their sound conveys the totality of getting run over by a train, of screaming until you drain yourself completely. The album’s sonic punch is designed to obliterate barriers, a musical response to the limits that keep encroaching until you’re stuck in a corner; if the destruction is figurative, it’s still a delight to hear represented in music.
“I’m looking for an open door/but all I see is a broken mirror,” sings Carter, capturing the band’s need to escape confinement and quash claustrophobia. Loud outbursts help: “Quit your job today!” So does sane advice: “A prism is not a prison/you can be many things and still be whole.”
Although their energy sustains, they don’t rock with abandon — they rock having scrupulously calculated every moment for maximum intensity. Their refusal to compromise is a rallying cry.
L7: Scatter the Rats (Blackheart)
As feminist punks, metal snarlers, grunge comedians, L7 rocked harder and more juvenile than most ‘90s bands, yelling and yowling over a volatile guitar storm with goth humor. Their first album in 20 years exactly replicates their classic sound without quite mustering the inexorable momentum that distinguished them then.
This album’s main thrill is the guitar bang: Donita Sparks and Suzi Gardner pound out one solid, catchy, immediately identifiable power riff after another, more punk-minimalist than in their molten grunge period, but distinctly L7 thanks to the simple, buzzy thrash. “Ouija Board Lies” chugs intently before letting loose with a solo that spirals out of control in the middle; “Cool About Easy” whacks away at the same swaggering chords with restrained force.
On the opening “Burn Baby”, whose constant downward electric strum is the most elementary sort of punk riff, they sound measured, deliberate, straightforward, and ready to take on the world. If anything, they’re too straightforward — these many honorably plodding songs aren’t ever quite as reckless or scrappy as their norm, as if they’ve adjusted to a slightly slower, more sustainable pace of life. Given this album’s electric wallop, it doesn’t represent a slackening so much as a blunting, as the riffs thump, and the beat thuds.
L7’s charm was always their cheesy humor, their cartoon defiance, their fusion of serious feminist protest with delight in the macabre and the scatalogical. These qualities remain, but sometimes their targets are muddled. On “Murky Water Cafe,” whose crunchy chords hop steadily, Sparks complains “We’re emojifying our every move,” mocking “free wifi” — as with many punk reunion projects, they’re challenged to distinguish between frustration with and reactionary contempt for the modern world. The boisterous “Stadium West,” in which a music festival floods, describes more genuinely scary phenomena with greater amusement and empathy.
They’re as loud as ever, but less focused. Animated by the pleasure of being back, they rock cautiously.
Gary Clark Jr.: This Land (Warner Bros.)
In the past, Gary Clark Jr. has crafted a blues-rock sound more booming and less minimalist than is the fashion among retro stylists, determined to break through received boundaries and prove that any genre can be assimilated into blues. As of this album, he’s started writing protest songs, but the real breakthrough is the dense muscularity of his guitar.
“This Land,” the album’s lead single and opening track, lashes out with a fierce political anger he’s never approached before, voicing Clark’s realization that money won’t protect him from racism. Apparently inspired by a real-life incident with a racist neighbor, the song finds Clark defending his 50-acre farm from both physical violence and the sheer disbelief of white people who don’t believe he owns it; over fuzzy electronic bass and a hot, rippling wah-wah guitar lick, he snarls, “This is where I come from/this land is mine,” and the Woody Guthrie allusion startles.
The lighter, more propulsive “What About Us” glides casually over the counterpoint between muddy, sturdy rhythm guitar and Clark’s higher, more defiant, nose-thumbing lead; as Clark overdubs chattering street voices from the neighborhood he sings about, the playful, ambiguous song could be an extended comedic routine about generational warfare or a cautionary tale about gentrification.
Although the rest of the album is more thematically conventional, his guitar has accrued a relaxed, bulky mass, especially when he layers on his signature wah-wah effects. The straightahead rock beat is beefed up by programmed drums, airy synthesizers, and electronic polish that doesn’t code as pop but rather makes this blues band sound exceptionally solid — too solid, maybe.
Where some postmodern bluesmen cultivate a stark, crude, garage-rock primitivism and risk the whole album falling apart, the security inherent in the mechanized backing band, and even the solos, does diminish the rawness. Guitars don’t cut steel from behind varnish. When Clark tries to sing falsetto the effect is similarly forced, as his gruff voice is better suited to blunt anger or spacey detachment than corny sex songs.
Clark has gained focus, energy, righteousness, but blues is a minimalist genre, and he’s still casting his net too wide. An entire album as complex and forceful as “This Land” and “What About Us” would jolt and inspire.