Essential New Music: Black Duck’s “Black Duck”

If Rhys Chatham hadn’t already done something with the name, Black Duck really should have been named Guitar Trio. Some of the reasons are obvious, like the fact that there are three guys in the band and that each one of them plays guitar on this debut LP. (That’s all that Bill MacKay does; Douglas McCombs also plays baritone guitar, and Charles Rumback handles the drums.) But this combo also represents the acme of a certain form of instrumental guitar music, with roots in its past and some strong notions about where it should go next. Not only do these musicians understand their guitar history (as evidenced by some knowing nods to Duane Eddy’s earthy twang and Tom Verlaine’s sublime chime), separately, they’ve made some of it themselves, playing in Tortoise and Eleventh Dream Day, on diverse projects with Ryley Walker and David Daniell, accompanying countless other pickers onstage, not to mention their own solo records.

But Black Duck doesn’t sound like the work of people content to show you what they already know. The tunes that each band member brought aren’t rehashes of prior projects, but sturdy vehicles for showcasing the trio’s taut ensemble vibe and shared capacity to transmute melodies into widescreen mental images. More than half of the album was improvised in the studio, a strategy that has freed them to collectively imagine configurations of sound that aren’t quite like anything any of them make elsewhere. The aptly named “Thunder Fade That Earth Smells” is built from layer upon layer of roiling gray noise and rough, crumbling tones. Album closer “Light’s New Measure” starts out celestial and then morphs into an unhurried but endlessly involving stroll that feels like it should go on for days. Don’t let those fowl decoys on the cover fool you; this is how guitars are supposed to sound in 2023.

—Bill Meyer