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Daniel Bachman - The Morning Star Music Album Reviews

No longer content to play music tethered to the past, the Virginia guitarist uses field recordings and unsettling ambient experiments to remake his virtuosic folk compositions for the present.

Making folk music can require consultation with the dead. In his semi-autobiographical short-story collection, How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life, from 2000, the late luminary John Fahey ascribed supernatural powers to his six-string, calling it “the road to the unconscious past.” Eighteen years later, these remain insightful words about an American musical tradition brimming with ghost stories. Heeding this wisdom throughout his young career, Daniel Bachman has paid tribute to the rhythmic nuances of American Primitive, ragtime, and folk with virtuosic guitar playing. But now, for the first time, the Virginia musician is approaching American roots music as a living panorama, not as something confined by its own past. On The Morning Star, Bachman expands the spatial dimensions of these genres to create folk for an uncertain present rather than an idealized past.

He has no choice but to begin this task with an exorcism. To banish the assumption that current folk music is fundamentally nostalgic, he expels lingering spirits with the 19-minute “Invocation.” An eerie arrangement of singing bowls gradually conjures metallic screeches from the beyond, before arriving at the calming buzz of a shruti box, then erupting into a fiddle’s feverish squeal. Bachman included drone compositions on his self-titled 2016 record and 2014’s Orange Co. Serenade, but those tracks offered grounding tranquility, while “Invocation” trades in unresolved tension. His longest album to date frames its seven songs as ongoing movements; freed from the burden of neatly pruned concision, each one seems to stretch out to infinity.

With the spell of “Invocation” lifted, Bachman invites us into rural settings evoked by meditative guitar pieces, extended field recordings, and unsettling ambient experiments. While his earlier work valued Leo Kottke-esque feats of fingerpicking, on The Morning Star, Bachman’s guitar moves discreetly, letting bustling fauna set scenes first. The chirp of evening crickets and cicadas on “Sycamore City” goes on for a full minute before Bachman’s guitar arpeggiation kicks in, mimicking their erratic sounds. On “New Moon,” his slide whines like a mosquito following a similar preamble.

On his previous records, Bachman moved swiftly through songs, but in mirroring the natural world, The Morning Star’s version of folk music constantly reconsiders the roles of its smallest and largest details. Though he plays hypnotically throughout the album, Bachman’s prominence on each track fluctuates depending on the size of its overall soundscape. His manic guitar is central to “Scrumpy,” until it settles and falls into the background, behind the sound of a passing train. And sometimes Bachman is altogether absent. “Car,” a menacing organ-drone piece that evokes Southern Gothic imagery of pastoral decay, climaxes with the static of an AM radio tuned a millimeter past an evangelical station. This creepy, serene and impossibly expansive view of the countryside intimates that American roots music, much like our natural surroundings, is so vast as to be unknowable.

Fahey experimented with field recordings and musique concrète, too; his late-’60s output included dog barks, locomotive whistles, sampled rainforest sounds. But if this was his pathway to the “unconscious past” he describes, Bachman is more interested in how these elements can push his music into the present. On “Song for the Setting Sun III” and “IV,” he revisits a series he began on 2015’s River, but this time he dims the major-chord brightness of the first two installments with slower, more melancholy and disjointed arrangements. Bachman’s willingness to fundamentally alter the tone of his compositions feels like a rejection of Americana traditionalism that upholds ancient genre conventions without looking for a bigger picture. A brief but vital moment on “III” illustrates this shift: An ambulance siren fades in and out, its wail less an interruption than a reminder of scale. The theoretical emergency—which might have altered someone’s life—comes and goes, yet the song calmly proceeds. Bachman respectfully plucks on, leaving the listener to appraise the gravity of what’s happening in the background.

That open-endedness is the heart of The Morning Star, and it doesn’t just represent a new style for Bachman; as the record progresses, it also teaches his audience a new way of listening. Closing track “New Moon,” whose title signals the completion of a cycle and rebirth, might have come off as meandering and repetitive at the beginning of the record. But in its final moments, once you’ve adjusted your ears, Bachman’s delicate gestures sound at once extremely private and cosmically vast.

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