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Roy Montgomery - Suffuse Music Album Reviews

After tentative vocal experiments on 2016’s R M H Q, the New Zealand guitarist crafts an entire album around guest singers, all women, in which he progressively blurs the traces of his own handiwork.

In 2016, veteran experimental guitarist Roy Montgomery fully shook off a decade-long musical hibernation with the four-LP set R M H Q: Headquarters. Three of the albums were entirely instrumental. Only the first, R: Tropic of Anodyne, featured the New Zealand musician’s voice: a world-weary baritone that dipped in and out of shadowy curtains of guitars. An artist whose most evocative music has historically been instrumental, Montgomery seemed wary of the prospect of singing even as he committed to it. “Where’s the value in cadence?/What makes lyrics sublime?” he wondered out loud on R: Tropic of Anodyne’s title track. The voice may be the most immediately human component to any piece of music, but vocalizing is an inherently vulnerable endeavor. It originates in the body and travels to another body with no intermediary.

For his new album, Suffuse, Montgomery took his discomfort with his own voice as an opportunity to open his music up to a roster of full-time singers. Built on R: Tropic of Anodyne’s outtakes, Suffuse boasts a different guest vocalist for each track. All are women, and Montgomery tailored each song’s instrumentals to each woman’s particular vocal style. Circuit des Yeux’s Haley Fohr opens the album with her formidable contralto, flooding a composition that doesn’t fall far from R: Tropic of Anodyne’s severity. Grouper’s Liz Harris closes it, her voice barely audible amid a wash of distorted guitars.

Male songwriters often compose for and with female pop singers, but such an arrangement is rarer in experimental music, where the idea of fixed individual artistry holds greater sway. Throughout Suffuse, Montgomery seems to try to shake that pretense. He dissolves his creative control as the album unfolds; while opener “Apparition” sounds like an R M H Q B-side with a slightly different vocalist, Julianna Barwick floods “Sigma Octantis” with her signature vocal layers, and the closing track with Harris could have been cut from a Grouper album. Montgomery’s creative thumbprint fades under his collaborators’. Throughout Suffuse, he tries with increasing fervor to lose himself.

Montgomery wrote the lyrics to the first three songs on the album, but let the guest vocalists hold the pen on the latter half, and you can hear his language slip at the midway point. Side A writhes with desire: specifically, the forthright hunger that tends to be associated with masculinity. “Have you something for me?” quakes Fohr on “Apparition,” while Katie Von Schleicher takes point on the frayed sexual longing of “Outsider Love Ballad No. 1.” “Hear me dying in the dark for something that smells of you/Here’s me lying on a bed that could have been stained with you," she snarls. Her voice snags along a trio of repeating melodic peaks like she’s clawing her way up a gravelly mountainside. The smell and the stain in Montgomery’s lyrics recall the tactile, violent hunger of Pixies’ “Cactus,” and so does the grain of Von Schleicher’s delivery, which ranks among the album’s most compelling. Montgomery wrote the song’s spare chord progression to suit her voice, and she pulled her voice threadbare to suit his lyrics: an astonishing exchange of artistry.

By “Mirage,” when the sisters Clementine and Valentine Nixon of Purple Pilgrims throw a hush on the music, Montgomery relaxes his grip. He can still be heard in the tone and the pace of the guitars that fall behind the vocals, but he has withdrawn from the foreground. His guest singers sound less and less like him, their voices higher and airier, and he swaddles the guitars in additional reverb to complement the shift. Few albums lay bare the process of their making quite like Suffuse; fewer still evince a desire on the part of the artist to relinquish control, piece by piece, until they have all but handed the reins to someone else. By introducing some of the era’s most compelling women singers to his music, Montgomery uncaps the catharsis that comes when you don’t have to sound like yourself. The rigid boundaries of self and gender fall away the more he unclenches from them, and in the space that’s opened, he finds new ways to let his music speak.

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