Album Review: David Grubbs & Taku Unami, “Failed Celestial Creatures”

From the early notes of “Failed Celestial Creatures” – the meditative, 20-minute-long title track to the unanticipated debut collaboration between guitar-composer David Grubbs and Japanese musician Taku Unami, out Friday via Empty Editions – you get the sense you’re listening to something special. While Unami paints with fuzzy clouds of electronic sound, Grubbs repeats wonderfully dirge-like, circular refrains on undistorted electric guitar; the piece, which has an amazing sense of breadth/breath, softly inhales and exhales. At its finest, the work is evocative of Grubbs’ collaboration with the master Loren Connors, and to compare something to a gem like their Arborvitae says a lot.

That lengthy track, unfortunately, gets a little muddied and lost in its final quarter as distortion enters the picture but, even then, it radiates an almost-unnerving calm. Improvised and pseudo-improvised music, which this Kyoto-recorded material clearly elicits, can have a kind of rawness and unexpectedness to it – it’s part of what makes being witness to it so magical – and Grubbs and Unami toy with this notion, citing in the text Japanese absurdist references to ritual sacrifices. Maybe I lean literalist here, but I experience more of a journey where you don’t know what’s lurking around the next river-bend. (Or not.) On Failed Celestial Creatures, Grubbs and Unami seem peculiarly in control, playing off each other’s fragile string-bending to the point where everything sounds carefully composed – in several senses of the word.

The rest of the record is good, has its moments, of course, but does not match the grand gestures of the opener. The four-song “Threadbare” suite is beautific and lulling, in a sparse, almost dream-seductive kind of way. But, sadly, on “The Forest Dictation,” Grubbs makes his points of reference – the tiger imagery from Nakajima’s The Moon Over The Mountain – a little too clear and ends up, at least in terms of the record’s only lyrics/vocals, sounding a bit like an impression of himself.

The distractions, in the end, though, are few and far between. For a debut, these two seem surprisingly comfortable in and complementing each other’s skins and fans, especially, of Grubbs gems like Banana Cabbage, Potato Lettuce, Onion Orange will be rightly impressed.