Guitarist-songwriter-bandleader Chris Forsyth is the rare exception that proves the rule. Rightfully but somewhat reductively known as a guitar player par excellence, one listen to Forsyth’s latest double album, All Time Present, reveals that while his dazzling musicianship can always be taken for granted, it’s hardly the whole story. Forsyth’s albums—presented with his Solar Motel Band or nominally solo, as here—have always been evidence of a musical mind brimming with ideas.
Forsyth is joined on All Time Present by bassist Peter Kerlin and multi-instrumentalist Shawn Edward Hansen, both longtime foils; new to the group is Ryan Jewell, a sublimely talented drummer whose musicality is seemingly bottomless. With this group, Forsyth is at the peak of his powers.
The album begins on a triumphal note: “Tomorrow Might As Well Be Today” provides a kind of overture, presenting some of Forsyth’s most concise and lyrical guitar spiderwebs complemented by Hansen’s Mellotron and Jewell’s buoyant groove.
“Mystic Mountain” is the latest of Forsyth’s songs to feature his unaffected and increasingly confident vocals, a practice begun on his previous double set for No Quarter, 2016’s The Rarity of Experience. Here, over a hypnotic beat suggesting Levon Helm gone Saharan, the band’s syncopated playing swirls behind his finest vocal number to date.
“The Man Who Knows Too Much,” is performed by Forsyth alone with Jeff Zeigler on Onde Magnétique, a cassette synthesizer. Here Forsyth and Zeigler —who also recorded the album— suspend time in a sort of weightless, heavy-lidded haze of acoustic guitar, Wurlitzer, drum machine and what sound like Jovian radio transmissions.
That brief piece makes for an appropriate introduction to “Dream Song,” which opens like a reading of Roy Buchanan’s funereal and riveting “The Messiah Will Come Again” before snapping into action. Soon, Forsyth is conjuring from his Stratocaster a lively and eloquent solo soaked in an uncharacteristically robust, thick tone. Airy and eerie double tracked vocals by fellow Philadelphian Rosali Middleman (noted for her own fine 2018 Trouble Anyway LP as well as her work with basement boogie specialists Long Hots) stand in the midst of all the whiplash and gnarl like a delicate but stubborn leaf clinging to a branch withstanding the turbulent maelstrom.
“The Past Ain’t Passed” provides a necessary cooldown, sounding like the introduction to Richard & Linda Thompson’s “The Cavalry Cross” (which Forsyth has covered) stretched to infinity. If the Fillmore West had been equipped with a chillout room, this would be the music you’d hear while safely ensconced inside its dimly-lit comedown sanctuary.
Continuing the trend of recent albums, Forsyth again makes space on the record to reprise and revisit one of his older tunes, this time in the form of “New Paranoid Cat” (previously known as “Paranoid Cat”), a piece he’s been performing steadily since at least 2010. This latest chapter continues in the spirit of previous renditions, Forsyth audibly relishing the opportunity to ruminate on the song’s structure, as if the tune itself were a mysterious object in Forsyth’s hands to be carefully considered, meditated upon, and puzzled out. The piece’s gradual build, sustained tension of eighth notes, and breaks that tease at release achieve a balance of tight, stately minimalism and sun-dappled pastoralism unheard since Gastr Del Sol circa Camoufleur.
“(Livin’ On) Cubist Time” whittles the group down to a duo of just Forsyth and Hansen for an extended piece of psych-trance variously recalling Michael Rother’s solo work, Don Cherry’s breathtaking collaboration with Terry Riley, and trumpeter Markus Stockhausen’s contributions to the ambient music of David Sylvian and Holger Czukay. Soft, vibrant, and elemental, the piece recalls not so much the work of Picasso as it does Monet.
Though rock is its predominant melodic language, the music of Chris Forsyth contains multitudes; as an arranger, he has displayed over the course of his career an almost monomaniacal dedication to rhythm and dynamics. Nowhere is this more evident than on album closer “Techno Top,” an extended jam that pushes the guitar into the background in favor of an irresistible kind of Germanic disco funk, or what Forsyth calls his “nihilistic disco accountant” vibe. The palm-muted, staccato rhythm guitar imagines Young Marble Giants gone highlife; the propellant but elastic rhythm section allows the track just the right amount of room to breathe and gradually expand until, finally, Forsyth lets loose with a scene-stealing wah guitar solo. A DFA or Superpitcher remix of this track would blow the fuck up.
All Time Present is the rare double album that goes by in a flash. Indeed, one of Forsyth’s greatest strengths as a composer and bandleader is his consistent ability to sustain interest even when at his most brazenly improvisational: he drifts, but he never meanders. On All Time Present, Forsyth’s particular drift is like that of a proverbial wallflower with a sudden surge of unselfconscious courage: toward the dance floor.