When an album’s press release promises a blend of two iconic Michaels – in this case Rother and Chapman – well, that’s promising a lot. But Wires Turned Sideways In Time, Duncan Marquiss’ debut solo album, manages to deliver the kosmische-folk goods throughout its seven expansive and inventive instrumentals. Marquiss occasionally treads upon familiar ground, but the Glasgow-based guitarist is an expert synthesist, finding new angles from which to approach classic sounds, layering one texture upon another until something brand new appears.
You may recognise Marquiss’ name from Scottish rockers The Phantom Band, who recorded several LPs of underrated, experimental-leaning indie before going on hiatus in the middle of the last decade. If the six-piece group had a fault, it was an overabundance of ideas. Wires Turned Sideways In Time, which Marquiss recorded entirely on his own, doesn’t have that problem. Instead, it feels sharply focused and purposefully minimal, even when the songs drift into expansive, exploratory territory.
To wit, things kick off with a nine-and-a-half-minute epic – “Drivenhalle” – which despite its length is a captivating ride from start to finish. The song features spare percussion (there are no full drum kits to be found anywhere on the album), but it is nevertheless a propulsive piece, driving ever forward, soaring higher and higher on the simple, sturdy strength of its pulsating bassline. On top of it all, Marquiss adds a majestically fuzzy lead that could fit easily on side one of Neu! ’75. As far as stage setters go, “Drivenhalle” is a winner, drawing you in almost instantly. There’s also a wonderfully impressionistic video that goes with it. An accomplished visual artist, Marquiss layers imagery in much the same way he layers his music, creating a haunting, dreamlike atmosphere.
“C Sweeps” and “Fixed Action Patterns”, the linked tracks that follow, are even better, like New Order doing their very best Popol Vuh impersonation. Even though the two songs, taken together, stretch out to almost 14 minutes, not a moment is wasted. “C Sweeps” opens with glistening harmonics that sweep across the mix, reverb-laden hand percussion and phased-out bass filling in behind, as another blindingly great Rother-ian guitar lead rises up. Again, the simplicity of Marquiss’ approach is masterful; the song follows an ascending two-chord progression throughout, but it keeps you rapt with its meditative repetition. “C Sweeps” flows seamlessly into “Fixed Action Patterns”, its crystalline guitar line drifting along as some inspired Steve Reich-ian percussion emerges, taking the listener into an entirely new realm altogether. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether things are coming together or falling apart, but it’s beautiful either way.
After that exhilarating trip through the cosmic reaches, Marquiss brings us back to earth on “Tracks”. It begins as a muddy river, minor-key lament that wouldn’t be out of place on an early-1970s Takoma Records LP, with the guitarist showing off his considerable fingerpicking and slide skills. But Marquiss isn’t giving us the full Fahey exactly. About halfway through, the ambient bed that’s stayed in the background starts to come to the fore, floating us into a different zone. One might be reminded of Jim O’Rourke’s similar tactics on his beloved 1997 LP Bad Timing, which happily sliced and diced the American Primitive tradition into avant-orchestral shapes.
That overlapping and intertwining continues for the duration of Wires…, with Marquiss weaving a masterful web. “Murmer Double” starts with an insistent, dubbed-out bass, shimmering washes of guitar and delicate woodblock percussion. Magnificent textures abound, sometimes smooth and polished, sometimes glitchy and processed. The title track offers more Reich-style minimalism translated to the guitar, with interlocking rhythms and melodies painting an unusual, but thoroughly transporting, picture. Closing things out, “Minor History” takes us back to a mellower acoustic space. But as Marquiss’ sweetly bluesy playing starts to move towards a dronier place, wisps of spectral feedback swirl in, offering a somewhat disquieting conclusion.
Marquiss recorded Wires Turned Sideways In Time at his parents’ home in the Scottish Highlands – and it’s tempting to see some kind of rural/urban contrast present in the acoustic and electric modes the guitarist employs on the LP. But the album ends up being a bit subtler than that, instead perhaps suggesting how the pastoral and progressive can peacefully coexist, overlapping and intertwining, until one is indistinguishable from the other. Look at something sideways long enough, and it might just reveal a totally fresh perspective.