Essential New Music: Sir Richard Bishop’s “Oneiric Formulary”

Have you tried to reach a doctor lately? Not so easy, is it? There are good reasons why this is the case, and we should all take a moment to give thanks for the heroic efforts of the medical professionals who are on the front lines of the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. But what do you do to deal with less urgent, but still troubling matters of the mind, body and spirit while you wait? Sir Richard Bishop is at your service with Oneiric Formulary.

Bishop may not be a doctor, but he’s been practicing diverse methods of sorcery since the 1980s, when he and the rest of Sun City Girls cast their first spells against the dulling pall of consensus reality. In more recent times, he’s traveled the world playing solo guitar, synthesizing the techniques of Django Reinhardt, Chet Atkins and Omar Khorshid into fleet instrumental expressions of visions beyond. Many of Bishop’s records are deep dives into a particular approach. His last effort for Drag City, 2015’s Tangier Sessions, explored one particular acoustic guitar’s potentialities, and fans of that record will find a lot to love on certain Oneiric Formulary pieces, particularly the wistful Roma reverie of “Black Sara” and the fleet, rustic strumming of “Enville.” 

But the album varies dramatically from track to track. Bishop has plenty of other instruments in his bag, and he handles them with practiced flexibility. Given Oneiric Formulary’s titular intent—to present a list of possible prescriptions for dreaming—you wouldn’t want to see a medic who only wields a saw, would you? “Call To Order” uses layers of digital synth voices to issue its call to stop and listen, and a host of electronic means conjure disturbing atmospheres on “Graveyard Wanderers.” Hurdy-gurdy and dumbek lead the charge into a distant, possibly a-historical past on “Dust Devils.” And “The Coming Of The Rats” layers sustained electric guitar and scrabbling effects over a down-tempo rhythm perfect for rolling the closing credits of some dystopian flick about the end times. Right about now, you might be wondering how Bishop foresaw the need to publish a comprehensive list of methods for cultivating fancy in April 2020, but that’s probably a trade secret available only to initiates. Yet to reap the benefits of his research, you need only kick back with Oneiric Formulary.

—Bill Meyer