J.H. Guraj – Underrated Glances at the Edge of Town (2016)
Instruments come with weight – the burden of history, saturation, ubiquity, and the endless accomplishment of those who came before. Few are free of these circumstances, but none bring a challenge equal to the guitar. In the last hundred years, no sound has permeated our consciousness more, or entered as many musical paradigms and distinct cultural realizations. Not only is it everywhere, but it has be so thoroughly explored, that the thought of bringing something new to it, might be called the pursuit of a self-destructive fool.
These are the ideas which drew me to the guitar – the foundation for my love and hate. It is inescapable, tired, and taken for granted – but artists who face its challenges, who push beyond the burden it bears and deliver it to places unknown, are caught in remarkable and almost Shakespearean comedy of wills. In the rare instance they manage to accomplish such a thing, these men and women take us to depths which few can plumb.
We live in a new age. The singularity, once pursued by players, is a thing of the past. It’s impossible to avoid treading the paths of those who came before. This challenge isn’t for musicians and composers alone. What do listeners demand? What do we look for now? Do we turn our back on the present, or reorient ourselves and look for something more?
A week ago, the new cassette by an Italian guitarist named J.H. Guraj crossed my path. My hopes weren’t high. The last decade has seen a rise in recordings of unaccompanied guitar. I have a deep respect for what it takes to wade these waters, but young players often leave me feeling cold. In their tones and structures, I hear hear little beyond the immortal past – the defaults of traditionalism, appropriation, and pastiche.
Guraj’s back story reads like a page out of the John Fahey play book. There’s myth, and the possibility of half-truths. The allusion sparked curiosity. So many have followed the path of the great father of unaccompanied guitar, but few have understood the character and complexity of his ideas – one element of which, was the spinning of a yarn. It made me curious. Had Guraj seen through the fog? Had he understood that Fahey’s proposal stretched beyond a single sound? Had he taken the beast into his belly, and given birth? It turned out, that’s what he’d done.
Not long ago, mentioning another guitarist, when describing your subject, would have been a slight – an indication of derivation or lesser vision. Today it’s changed. It is not matter of avoiding the playing of others, it’s how you contend with its inevitability within your own. Most guitarists accept this, but don’t speak it aloud. As a result, few can move beyond what previous generations feared.
Guraj’s playing took me by surprise. A vision of the past instantly appears – but one shattered, scrambled, and reassembled before your ears. This isn’t appropriation or pastiche. He does what few players can – accepts the inevitable, and builds a Frankenstein out of the condition from which it grows. This is the Post-Modern guitar.
As his first tones rang out, I went tumbling back twenty years – into the strange, singular, and under-explored territory traced by Mick Turner, and John Fahey in his greatly misunderstood late years – spent playing electric guitar. For the sake of nostalgia, and the fact that so few others have entered these waters, I might have been happy to let Guraj off the hook – if only to rest there for a while. To my joy and surprise, he moves quickly on. What took me years to unravel, was that what I love in Turner’s playing, and where Fahey took his at the end, was their vulnerability and willingness to fail. It didn’t matter where a note fell, or how it sang. It could sputter, buzz, bend out of tune or time. Both went places that few could go – into the profound depths of self. This is what Guraj has grasped. He recognizes that the past is a vessel to which you are bound. Though escape is impossible, it means little. It is yours to pour yourself into, or shatter to the ground. It doesn’t matter how you play. It’s what you play.
Remarkably, as the Underrated Glances at the Edge of Town unfolds, the past becomes more present, and yet fades away. Its sounds are there, but more fleeting and broken – a shimmering collage. In their midst strange things grow – moments of vulnerability, risk, singularity, and then a new voice – Guraj’s own. There are moments in his playing that I haven’t heard before – strange stumblings of time, unexpected arrangements of tones, a voice and depth of emotion which in the history of guitar playing is exceedingly rare. The moment I finished listening, I pressed play again.
In the week I’ve had it, the cassette has taken over my time. I’m not sure how many times it’s played through, but it’s more than a few. When I mentioned to the folks at Maple Death – the label responsible for bringing the artist’s efforts to view, how much I loved it, they asked if I would like take part in it’s debut. I was honored and happily obliged. This write up serves as announcement, premier, as well as my review. Check out the two samples below, and pick it from Maple Death as quickly as you can. This is one not to be missed. An album a rare beauty and vision, building the future out of the shards of the past.
J.H Guraj – I Don’t Belong Here (2016)
J.H Guraj – The Train (2016)