Essential New Music: Alastair Galbraith’s “Talisman”

Full disclosure: The album under consideration and I go way back. My old micro-label put one of its songs on a seven-inch, and I wrote liner notes for a reissue of Talisman in 2006. If you want measured impartiality, I’m sure there’s a store selling scales somewhere in town. But if you want to know about the return of one of the best albums of the 1990s, which has just been issued on vinyl for the first time, stick around.

Alastair Galbraith is a life-long resident of New Zealand’s South Island, a place distinguished by its astoundingly gorgeous topography and profound distance from the rest of the world. Both qualities infuse his music. Galbraith was a violin-toting schoolboy who took up guitar and songwriting after seeing the Clean (look ‘em up; you won’t be sorry) playing youth dances on weekend afternoons. After some early recording efforts with the Rip (a combo that released a couple EPs on Flying Nun), Galbraith found creative community in the late 1980s with the Xpressway collective, which released the first examples of his mature song- and sound-craft. Brief and splintered, his home-recorded miniatures were a reproach of everything gross and glaring about that time, as well as an augury of the looming do-it-yourself/low-tech flood. Talisman, Galbraith’s second album, was as DIY as things got. He painted the cover art; wrote and recorded the songs alone; performed them by himself save for a few guest licks played by Shayne Carter, David Mitchell and Nigel Bunn; and released the CD in 1995 on his Next Best Way imprint.

On the album-opening title tune, Galbraith intones a questions of mystic curiosity through a feeding-back telephone mic whose distortion ushers in a sense of otherness that persists throughout the album’s 20 tracks. Like most of them, it’s short; the whole record lasts about 37 minutes. But their rough brevity does not mean that they were knocked off; a close listen reveals that they are dense with intervention. Galbraith’s method often involved recording an idea, letting it sit a few months, then adding and subtracting tracks, playing them backward and cutting them up to isolate a few especially potent seconds of distilled sound and emotion.

But what made Talisman great was not its advancement of independent action or Galbraith’s inventive application of minimal tools, but its undilute manifestation of experiential extremes that, once heard, cannot be unfelt. The rocking “Black Flame” is the acme of exultation, while ballad “Anais” concentrates the essence of longing. The rickety, chaotic “Policemen On Ether” synthesizes horror and hilarity, and psychedelic recitation “Lucid Branches” is a transfixing moment of holy transcendence. The songs share space with equally evocative instrumentals.

The longest vocal-free piece, named “Mrs. Meggary” after a teacher unfondly remembered for her disciplinary pursuits, turns dogged violin mistreatment into a fantasia of student revenge. The miniscule “Waits,” on the other hand, evokes smallness in a vast world with just a few sullen strums and detuned notes. Haunted and haunting, Talisman is a wondrous world unto itself. [Otic]

—Bill Meyer