Norman Westberg - After Vacation [Room 40 - 2018]Swans guitarist Norman Westberg steps out of the shadow cast by his former band to release his latest solo opus After Vacation on Room 40 Records. Westberg has been a huge influence on a generation of guitar players having played on the vast majority of Swans releases, enjoying three separate spells with the band, the first from 1983 until 1991 taking inall of their classic early material. He briefly rejoined for the album The Great Annihilator in 1995 and was a key figure in the band’s resurrection in 2010, when Michael Gira reunited the band for a run of rather excellent albums. He stayed until the end appearing on all of the band’s albums that were recorded during that final run.
After Vacation is a real departure from Swans style. Firstly, this doesn’t follow traditional rock guitar song structures. The album is completely instrumental and whilst the guitar is the only instrument used on the record, you would never know it as it is used in a far more experimental manner. Westberg uses effects to create an Avant Garde, ambient experience that is reminiscent of something that was recorded with a bank of synthesizers. Such is the experimental nature of the sounds within this record.
Opener Soothe the String is an atmospheric slab of minimalist ambience built around string like drones and the merest hint of plucked guitar. Beautiful and brooding it sets its stall up and leads the way for the rest of the album to follow. Drops in A Bucket is up next and provides more of the same dark atmospherics. Dense and surprisingly detailed the track draws the listener in, creating a truly immersive experience. Sliding Sledding is incredibly evocative of wintery conditions. This wouldn’t sound out of place on the soundtrack to a Raymond Briggs animation. One can almost feel the nip of Jack Frost in the air and hear the crunch of snow under foot. Norman Seen as An Infant follows in similar style, the music ebbing and flowing almost like an orchestral recording. The album’s centrepiece is surely the epic twelve-minute Levitation. Beginning quite sparsely the track begins to unfurl over time taking the listener on a journey through a winter wonderland. Once again, I am reminded of Raymond Briggs – this particular piece would be an appropriate accompaniment to scenes of the snowman and the young boy flying above the beautiful snowy countryside. Finally, the title track and album closer After Vacation features some rather wonderful folky picked guitar work that recalls Led Zeppelin’s Black Mountain Side and the work of great guitarists like Bert Jansch and John Renbourn. It comes as a real surprise to hear a guitar played in such a traditional manner when the rest of the album provides such an experimental experience for the listener.
Overall, After Vacation is a lovely album that perfectly evokes images of winter. It is a real change of direction from Norman Westberg’s work with Swans, however it is a very welcome one. The guitar playing is largely understated and sparingly used, instead Westberg uses his instrument to create beautiful droning soundscapes through a series of effects. The result is a triumphant record that’s filled with emotion and takes the listener on a journey. One, I shall be taking time and again in the coming weeks.Darren Charles