Album Review: Mary Halvorson & John Dieterich, A Tangle of Stars

A Tangle of Stars cover

Mary Halvorson and John Dieterich’s first collaborative album, A Tangle of Stars, released on artistically diverse label New Amsterdam Records, unfolds across a wide range of musical styles. “Drum The Rubber Hate” is the first new piece on the record, composed by Halvorson, a 2019 MacArthur Fellow and prolific solo guitarist, improviser, and bandleader. It’s an upbeat, dreamy track, built from the layering and repetition of melodic fragments. Starting in unison, it forks into fuzzy electric guitar melodies and detailed improvisational solos, all played over layering of the first thematic material. Here, Halvorson’s signature fluid improvisational jazz is a powerful force amongst the more rock-oriented soundscape. “Drum the Rubber Hate” shifts into the woozy sonic landscape of “Balloon Chord,” also composed by Halvorson, where detailed, alternating guitar plucks echo into a hazy sea of sound.

This foggy atmosphere takes a sharp turn on the next track, “Short Knives,” which is marked by brief, percussive phrases and harsh plucking. Composed by Dieterich, a guitarist and member of beloved experimental rock band Deerhoof, “Short Knives” weaves the quirky, punching electric sound of Deerhoof with improvisational fluidity. It’s off-kilter, leaning on syncopation and melodic layering to create an unsettled atmosphere. There’s a sudden shift to “Lace Cap,” also composed by Dieterich. Here, instead of a sharp rigidity, the atmosphere completely changes to lilting melodic bliss of a folky lullaby.

Very much a collaborative effort – five songs were written by Halvorson, and five by Dietrich, with one co-written piece and a cover of J.D. Robb – A Tangle of Stars represents a new melding of ideas from two artists who regularly participate in collaborative music-making and explore new artistic paths. Halvorson has worked with a wide range of instrumental jazz ensembles, and has recently begun an experimental vocal project called Girl Code. Dieterich has performed live with Deerhoof in a wide range of collaborations, and has worked with artists from Sufjan Stevens to Xiu Xiu. 

Halvorson and Dieterich first collaborated at the Wels Unlimited Festival Austria in 2017, where they explored an acoustic, entirely improvised soundscape. A Tangle of Stars expands this concept, incorporating electronic instruments, noise, and multiple types of guitars. “Undercover Meltdowns” begins with a light, upbeat repeating melodic fragment, reminiscent of the final movement of Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint. A deep drone comes into play, and eventually the original theme fragment is morphed into its dissonant sibling. “The Handsome” opens with twisting, indefinable noise that solidifies into a fast-paced call-and-response between two electric guitars. 

Then there’s “My Mother’s Lover,” a full blown experimental rock instrumental interlude. The most conventional of the pieces on the album, it employs a drum track and a retro high-pitched, syncopated synthesizer. It sounds like a backing track to a Deerhoof song; you can picture Satomi Matsuzaki singing over the funky rhythms. But this jam track only lasts for 3 minutes, and with “Better Than The Most Amazing Game,” each element presented before – drums, electric guitars, electronics – is broken down: drums beat irregularly, guitars strum dissonance, high-pitched electronics ring at random.

“Continuous Whatever” ends the record with a crisp positivity. Gently ringing chime-like guitars intertwine in a brief, but peppy ditty, keeping us in the whimsical world Halvorson and Dieterich have created. A Tangle of Stars is characterized by its extensive mixtures and styles, and brought to life by its ever-evolving narrative.

A Tangle of Stars is available for streaming and purchase on Bandcamp.

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