“New Scarab”[audio:http://alarm-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Arbouretum-New_Scarab.mp3|titles=Arbouretum: “New Scarab”]
Bands that traffic in psychedelic/stoner-rock orthodoxy often follow a dogmatism that rings shallow. In one fell swoop — three songs, to be precise — Baltimore quartet Arbouretum effectively lays waste to anyone who’s ever bowed at the altar of the fuzzed-out guitar to mask (or revel in) creative bankruptcy.
Over the course of its three preceding full-length albums, Arbouretum quietly has expanded the margins of what’s possible when psychedelia and its attendant memes are approached with a sense of invention — which is to say that Arbouretum mostly ditches the memes, concentrates on what’s at the heart of its music rather than what’s on the surface, and forges a new path entirely. The fuzz on these guitars is cranked high enough to leave dust bunnies knotted in your facial hair for days, but any comparison to other superficially like-minded acts stops dead right there.
Bandleader/front-man/songwriter Dave Heumann’s stock in trade can be described as a kind of high-brow rock with a surprisingly accessible potency given his attraction to esoteric ruminations. The fact that he chants these ruminations into an electrifying guitar funnel cloud over plodding, tractor-like rhythms certainly helps. But even the one relatively light, folk-tinged number here, “The Black Sun,” surges with gravitas. Whether holding back or letting it rip, the band sounds absolutely natural — graceful even — instilling a mood of vague foreboding and drama without overplaying its hand. Meanwhile, Heumman brings a fine poetic flair to his lyrics. His vocal melodies — amazingly enough when you consider the subject matter — have an anthemic quality rooted not in pop-hook formula but in whatever force of nature moves a person to climb to a hilltop and sing.
Together, these qualities pack a wallop that extends beyond what amplifiers can convey on their own. And Arbouretum’s recordings just keep getting fuller and clearer with each successive release. Sonically speaking, this three-song offering arguably represents the band’s most fully realized production values yet. Heumann’s gaze is often cast far off in the distance at remote, intangible matters, yet this is gripping, vigorous music suited for moving around and sweating — perhaps all the more physically galvanizing because the lyrics evade easy understanding.
Fittingly, the first half of this release consists of five songs by Hush Arbors, the solo moniker of Keith Wood, who is otherwise known for his work with Six Organs of Admittance, Sunburned Hand of the Man, Current 93, and Thurston Moore. Wood’s jangly, delicate songs certainly contrast with Arbouretum’s stormy roar, but by playing all the instruments himself, he manages to channel a full band. The instruments synergize with each other in the same convincing way that (generally) requires musicians playing off each other. On these songs, he holds his own admirably as a counter-weight to Arbouretum.
Like Heumann, Wood threads obvious influences into his work yet avoids ripping them off. His unabashed appropriation of The Rolling Stones on “Prayer of Forgetfulness,” for example, bears fresh artistic fruit that a copycat artist just wouldn’t have the soul or ability to muster. And Wood’s sly, irreverent approach to knitting guitar lines together recalls what once made the Stephen Malkmus / Spiral Stairs team so engaging.