Bill Orcutt and Adris Hoyos’ ’90s band Harry Pussy were described by critic Douglas Wolk as “just about the most abrasive band America has ever seen”. The noise and chaos masked some of the most important and influential music of the era, though; an often harrowing amalgamation of free jazz and blues filtered through the eyes of hardcore. Beloved by contemporaries such as Sonic Youth, they released five albums, most notably on the Ohio-based Siltbreeze label, but split after Orcutt and Hoyos divorced in 1997. Orcutt moved to San Francisco to become a software engineer and retired from music for over a decade.
Inspired by putting together a compilation of Harry Pussy, Orcutt began making music again, beginning with the release of A New Way To Pay Old Debts on his own Palilalia label in 2009. Enthused by seeing his previous band through fresh eyes and hindsight, Orcutt reconditioned an old Kay acoustic guitar, slackening the strings to make the guitar playable and set about elaborating on the idiosyncrasies he saw in his guitar playing.
By the time A History Of Every One was released in 2013, the vivid array of aggressively clipped attack, open expansive chords and unique awareness of space was fully formed and released upon a series of wild covers taken from the great American songbook. Brutally honest versions of songs such as “Zip A Dee Doo Dah”, “Over The Rainbow” and “Onward Christian Soldiers” were presented in a way that celebrated America, warts and all. As Orcutt told The Guardian: “I was thinking of this record as a white trash version of [Bob Dylan’s] The Basement Tapes – instead of all this mystical American culture, I’m taking the most unpoetic, un-mysterious aspects of American culture.” At the root of this record, and the ones that followed, Orcutt is a wonderfully expressive guitarist. There are echoes of Lightin’ Hopkins, John Fahey and even John McLaughlin’s playing on Bitches Brew, but he manages to transcend these comparisons with a technique unmistakably his own.
Music For Four Guitars is stylistically a departure from the languid chord studies of his most recent work such as 2019’s flawless Odds Against Tomorrow; here he focuses on rhythm, interplay and dynamics. Each of the 14 pieces is comprised of four multi-tracked guitar progressions of different signatures dancing around each other, never quite arriving back at the same place, rolling, gathering momentum with ever-increasing technicality and complexity. It’s refreshing to listen to a record that one might describe as ‘experimental’ living up to the adjective; it feels like Orcutt has systems and objectives in place, and whether they land or not isn’t really the primary concern.
Sonically, the music is ruthlessly minimal. The four guitars are identical in tone and it’s often impossible to differentiate between the lattice of melody that bulldozes along. The elaborate orchestration feels uncomfortably dense, but by the middle of the record and the pairing of “On The Horizon” and “Glimpsed While Driving”, the loping rhythms transcend their intricate construction and the music becomes mesmerising. The accumulative effect is transformative but focusing on the moving parts, the elaborate patterns and the mazes that constantly expand and unwind is fascinating. The stark reality of the music’s often caustic infrastructure is never far from the surface; it nags and vies for your attention amid the hum. The landscape is beautiful, but it’s made of chaos, struggle and violence.
While comparisons could be made to Steve Reich’s early work, it would be reductive to call this minimalism. In many ways it has more in common with the indeterminate or chance music of composers such as John Cage, so the inclusion of a notated score in the sleevenotes offers a tantalising glimpse as to where this path could lead Orcutt. The stark fidelity and similarity in tone of the four guitars occasionally gives the recording a frustratingly monophonic quality, so the proposition of these compositions being performed by four different guitarists or by four different instruments entirely is intriguing. Having essentially retired from making music, the body of work Orcutt has amassed since he re-emerged 13 years ago is both inspiring and admirable. To have maintained a lucid palette over such a progressively diverse collection of records shows Orcutt as an artist very secure in his own ability, and confident in his convictions. The door that he’s opened with Music For Four Guitars undoubtedly leads to some very exciting places.