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Even on first listen, Strata evokes a feeling of familiarity so rich that it bleeds into nostalgia. Icelandic composer and bassist Skúli Sverrisson exhibits a rare ability to pen tunes that are singular without being subversive. These 10 gorgeous miniatures, available now as a download, feature melodies strong enough to make every tonal shift feel inevitable, creating and satisfying expectations in one continuous act. They unfold like stray memories.
But the compositions themselves are just outlines made for Bill Frisell to color and animate. He does so inventively, with strength of character and without anything that resembles a solo. Few guitarists are able to really care for a melody the way Frisell does, gently guiding each note forwards, as if balancing something fragile. Instead of elaborating on the melodies or setting them aside in favor of his own, Frisell delivers them straight, focusing on texture, groove and ambient counterpoint.
Strata is very much a recording project, rather than a performance-based collaboration that happens to have been set to tape. For example, Frisell overdubs liberally, saturating each track with an alchemy of complementary tones from his Telecaster. The sepia waves on the cover art allude not only to the timeless quality of the pieces, but also to the warmth that defines the record, both sonically and emotionally.
“Ancient Affection” begins with a section of wistful baroque counterpoint between bass and fingerpicked guitar. Frisell doubles the lead line with a heavily reverbed jazz tone that shifts to muted arpeggios as two more guitar layers sweep the piece into an amorphous B section. The brittle fingerpicking, blending seamlessly with Sverrisson’s undulating bass part, keeps the track moving with a consistent gait and allows a series of chords to open up in lieu of melodic content. Frisell doubles the blunt chords with a brighter tone while a faint overdrive track lends roughness to the background, quavering like a mirage. The entire album wanders slowly, self-hypnotized. It comes off as effortless — Asher Wolf