Graded on a Curve:
Roy Montgomery,
Music from the Film
Hey Badfinger

Over the course of thirty-plus years, veteran New Zealand guitarist Roy Montgomery played a crucial part in the fledgling Flying Nun scene, the ‘90s low-fi underground, and most notably as an instrumental solo artist of true distinction. He was most prolific in the period ’95-’01, but the last couple years have saw him return with no diminishment of his creative powers. His latest release is the curiously welcoming Music from the Film Hey Badfinger, and it hopefully foretells a steady return to activity for this important and highly missed figure.

Even if Roy Montgomery’s only musical credit had been as part of The Pin Group, he would still be much more than a footnote. For that band holds the honor of recording the first single on the justifiably lauded Flying Nun label. Released in 1981, “Ambivalence” b/w “Columbia” not only kick-started the imprint’s pretty much faultless run of early-‘80s releases, but along with The Gordons, a fantastic group that eventually morphed into Bailter Space, and the reliable brilliance of Tall Dwarfs, The Pin Group also helped provide a healthy dose of variety to this very vital scene.

While definitely a breath of fresh Kiwi air, The Chills, The Verlaines, and The Clean all put sweetly individual spins on what was essentially a pop-rock impulse. The Pin Group, featuring Montgomery on guitar and vocals, Ross Humphries on bass and vocals, and Peter Stapleton on drums (guitarist/vocalist Mary Heney of the obscure but splendid Flying Nun outfits Scorched Earth Policy and The Victor Dimisich Band was briefly on board for the ’82 12-inch The Pin Group Go to Town), were far more post-punk in orientation, indeed giving off the strong fumes of a high-quality Joy Division influence.

They weren’t anything like one-trick ponies however, possessing strong songwriting and musicianship and even tossing covers of Red Crayola’s “Hurricane Fighter Plane” and War’s “Low Rider” into their too brief mix. The group’s whole discography was compiled onto a 12-song CD by Siltbreeze back in ’97, but last Year Flying Nun reissued it all on LP under the title Ambivalence and tucked a bonus live CD (at The Gladstone Hotel July 4 1981) into the bargain. Anyone interested in a full immersion of the ‘80s New Zealand experience should definitely look into its contents.

Post Pin Group, Montgomery released a 7-inch in 1985 by a group called The Shallows but otherwise laid pretty low, attending university and working in theatre, but around 1991 he reappeared with Stapleton, bassist/vocalist Kim Pieters, and keyboardist Janine Stagg in the group Dadamah. They were but one ingredient in what felt like an onslaught of noisier, far more experimental Kiwi commotion that included such names as The Dead C, The Renderers, Peter Jefferies, Gate and Alastair Galbraith, but Dadamah were a big part of the equation, releasing a pair of singles and an LP This is Not a Dream for the Majora imprint. Last year the Yellow Electric label also issued a pair of unreleased songs from 1992 onto a single, adding some extra heft to a fairly tidy but heavyweight discography.

From the dissolution of Dadamah, Montgomery went on to a pair of very swell albums in duo with fellow New Zealand guitarist Chris Heaphy, a less song focused and more soundscape oriented project called Dissolve. And it was during this same mid-‘90s period that he commenced a pretty stellar stream of solo albums for labels such as Kranky, Drunken Fish, and VHF, along with over a dozen singles. A lot of high points occurred during this surge of production, but maybe the highest was “Fantasia on a Theme by Sandy Bull” from Drunken Fish’s 1996 3LP compilation Harmony of the Spheres.

That absolute jewel of a comp found Montgomery in quite sturdy company as part of a surging global movement, one that while solidly u-ground was also unusually welcoming and diverse in aural terms; there was heavy psyche (Bardo Pond), low-fi/shoegaze (Flying Saucer Attack), post-rock (Jessamine), experimentalism (Loren Mazzacane Connors), and folk/drone (Charalambides). Naturally, there were shared attributes, the biggest one being the drone, a tag that was sometimes applied to this scene/movement overall. And Roy Montgomery sat amongst these estimable peers with great comfort.

One reason for the man’s roughly five-year burst of activity was a trip around the world, a journey that found him in the UK and collaborating with Flying Saucer Attack, visiting the Mayan ruins in Tikal Guatemala for creative enrichment, and landing in the US where he joined forces with Bardo Pond in the extremely worthwhile project Hash Bar Tempo, and also made a bunch of four track recordings while apartment sitting in the East Village of Manhattan. But post 2001, Montgomery’s fresh output all but disappeared due to his return to NZ to family life and work as a university lecturer.

Yes, there was Inroads – New and Collected Works, an illuminating 2CD set issued by Rebis in ’07, and a split LP with Portland OR’s Grouper via Root Strata in ‘09 which contained a swell sidelong reading of his Harmony of the Spheres track captured live in Christchurch earlier that year, but Roy didn’t really get solidly back on the new release tip until the self-titled appearance of the Torlesse Super Group CD on Rebis in ’11. That disc found him teaming up with countryman Nick Guy to produce a spiffy sonic excursion perhaps not all that far from what he was up to with Chris Heaphy circa Dissolve, and it was fantastic to see it surface, even if the tracks were four to seven years old.

Well, Montgomery is back once again with Music from the Film Hey Badfinger, a very happening LP press courtesy of Yellow Electric (the label of Liz Harris, the woman behind Grouper) that finds Roy reconnecting with some guitar music and loops of a few years’ vintage and presenting them as the soundtrack to an imaginary film that’s subject matter concerns the troubled reign of one of the finest bands Apple Corps ever signed.

The idea of a soundtrack to an imaginary film might seem flighty, but the record doesn’t connect that way in the slightest. Hey Badfinger does indeed unwind like a collection of film-derived material. For starters, it’s instrumental, but it also presents a succession of recurring cyclical patterns that do a fantastic job of conjuring moods and sonic environments.

And if the idea of solo guitar compositions scored for a film that doesn’t exist leads the reader to speculate that Hey Badfinger is going to be up to the sort of suspect indie music/indie film shenanigans that are all too common these days, please nix those notions right quick. Montgomery’s playing here is often pretty, but it’s never cutesy, and as explained above the music was completed long before the album’s unusual but ultimately endearing title “concept” was added.

The album’s name and additionally some of the song titles, the first two being “Go Easy Pete Ham” and “You Too Tom Evans,” can’t help but add a touch of sincere melancholy to the project. The tale of Ham’s suicide by hanging only to be followed years later by Evans’ choosing the very same fate has always been one of rock’s more tragic stories. But if conversant with that sadness, Hey Badfinger is far from a downer, instead unwinding like the inspired tribute it is.

But Montgomery’s guitar playing across the album stands up completely on its own merits. He hits upon a musical terrain of disciplined repetition that is in deep accord with his other work and yet is distinct from anything else I’ve heard from his hand. It really hits a swell middle ground between the melodicism that Montgomery has always been capable of and the more abstract soundscape-esque stuff that he has more frequently excelled at bringing to the table.

Perhaps the only persnickety thing about Music from the Film Hey Badfinger is that the music is again at least a few years old. Hopefully Montgomery is recording new material to be unleashed at a later date. But if not, at least there’s this one, a record that like so much of his discography is fully loaded with a long lifespan of rewards. Maybe it’ll even inspire somebody to actually make that titular film. That’s something I’d really like to see.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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