Graded on a Curve:
Peals, Walking Field

Folks holding a fondness for cerebral yet non-forbidding instrumental music just might find the debut LP from Baltimore duo Peals very much to their liking. While guitar focused and wielding a palpable experimental bent, the record also features a naturally-derived accessibility that compromises their ambitions not a bit, and if somewhat brief in impact, Walking Field successfully whets the appetite for further material.

Peals are composed of William Cashion and Bruce Willen, their individual résumés each essaying prior musical successes which sprang from the fertile environs of the Charm City. And while not at odds, the dissimilar genres of their past achievements sorta predicted that a stylistic merger of their extant work was highly unlikely.

However, it would still be understandable for those familiar, either in part or in full, with the pair’s previous activities to expect some sort of overtly digestible progression from either the brainy synth-pop Cashion deals out as part of Future Islands or the aggressively arty post-hardcore (think McLusky or Wire’s recent output) that was Willen’s specialty via the now defunct Double Dagger.

But interestingly, Peals essentially registers as a clean break from what both of the participants have been up to in the recent past. The biggest surprise isn’t the lack of vocals, for neither Cashion nor Willen were the singing members of the combos listed above. For Willen, the lack of bass is a considerably bigger change in tactics, for he swung the four-stringer rather mightily in a group that lacked any other guitars.

Also notable in the aural scheme of Peals’ debut is the absence of drums or even any percussion devices at all save for a modest tambourine. Both members are credited with guitars, and their shared duties on the instrument provide the biggest portion of Walking Field’s thrust, though the record also employs the utilization of keyboards, field recordings, walkie-talkies, feedback, cello, toy piano, and microphones to complete the totality of its sound.

Thrill Jockey’s press materials for the LP mention both Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins and “the minimalist recordings from the sonic pioneers of the 1970s German scene” as directly inspiring the creation of Walking Field, but the resulting album, while not without moments that mildly recall these associations, is revealed as far less beholden to either influence than might be assumed from a simple perusal of that description.

To tackle the Germanic side of the scenario first, while Peals certainly share in a minimalist outlook that’s similar to the early motions of such groups as Tangerine Dream, Cluster, and Harmonia, there is also an immediately noticeable difference, specifically a missing desire for frequently prog-like, and often ominous, audio sprawl.

In its place comes a considerably tidier orientation coupled with an outlook that while never cloying, can nevertheless be accurately described as engagingly pretty. And this approachability is where the nod to Guthrie is most properly assessed, but in the end Peals’ debut connects much differently from the lush post-Goth spillage of the Cocteau Twins.

If Peals don’t directly rip any pages from that 4AD group’s hefty textbook, or for that matter ransack the multi-volume encyclopedia of Musik Kosmische (i.e. the more abstract, less rhythmically-focused groups corralled under the Krautrock designation) for obvious form moves, they are ultimately much better for it. However, a loose comparison perhaps can be made between Walking Field and Evening Star, the 1976 collaboration between Brian Eno and guitarist Robert Fripp, particularly that LP’s title cut.

It’s surely possible that I’m guilty of awarding a disproportionate level of influence to Evening Star, for I made the same connection regarding last year’s excellent Dreams Say, View, Create, Shadow Leads from Peals’ city/label cohort Dustin Wong. But if so, I can’t shake the reliably glistening lack of abrasion found in the guitar playing of both records.

Not that they sound very much alike. Wong is far more intricate and cyclical, merging the cleanliness of his Fripp-like tone with a method similar to Steve Reich, and if his work contains flashes of Evening Star’s beauty, he instead shapes it into a maximal string-based zone that’s comparable to the personality of yet another Baltimore guy, namely Dan Deacon.

The music presented by Peals does feel more aligned to the actual effects produced by that enduringly stimulating (to these ears, anyway) Fripp-Eno disc, though the two records are actually quite unique. A listener would definitely never mistake one for the other. What they do seem to share is operational undercurrents. And Walking Field actually holds the greater stylistic diversity of the two records.

For right off the bat, “Floating Leaf” formulates a lovely passage of Americana-styled guitar, though it eschews an especially rustic vibe for a shimmering studio-enhanced depth, at least in the cut’s first half. The latter section engages with a drifting abstraction that while never actually ambient, does come within striking distance of Mr. Eno’s aesthetic.

Topping the eight minute mark, “Floating Leaf” is also Walking Field’s longest track, though its change of direction midway through allows it to easily retain conciseness. A rhythmic and indeed drum-like element is a major component of the following piece “Blue Elvis,” and if that appears to be a bait-and-switch from the description detailed above, it’s explained that all percussion sounds on the LP were made through contact with guitars and microphones, and this tactic imbues the music with a unique and rewarding flavor.

While the cadence unwinds with the steady, methodical clack of a machine, due to the objects utilized it can’t escape the aura of a very old, though well-maintained and still quite sturdy piece of equipment. As string-glisten infuses “Blue Elvis” with threads of gorgeous atmosphere, the rhythm’s aged warmth lends a sense of the organic to a work of meticulous studio conception.

Make that studio craftiness, for “Belle Air” contains what at first seems like a duet for wind-chimes and glockenspiel, but is probably toy piano and field recordings. Waves of additional sound also rise and subside as the track unwinds, steadily increasing in assertiveness until the piece becomes a thick, gradually expanding mass of complimentary tones.

“Belle Air” is the farthest that Walking Field travels into the deep weeds of abstraction, but the gesture toward more “outside” terrain does little to derail the record’s momentum. Instead, it provides some agreeable breadth amongst the more graspable facets on display. And “Pendelles,” featuring the resonant, closely-recorded tones of guest Kate Barutha’s cello, manages a further increase in variety while also giving the LP its deepest passage of emotional expressiveness.

“Tiptoes in the Parlor” is a likable though quite brief (under two minutes) tapestry for dual guitar that leads into “Lonestar,” another piece structured around a rhythmic pattern. This time it’s a deliberate loop holding the precision and warmth of a healthy beating heart. Along with judicious injections of keyboard, the melodious guitar lines of the song are the closet Walking Field comes to a low-key post-rock. From there, “Believers” shapes up as an intriguing cloud of minimal Kraut-like expanse that in its final couple minutes gets progressively overtaken by non-disruptive amplifier noise.

With its precisely delivered lines of string splendor and methodically rising intensity (and also featuring Barutha’s second cello guest-spot), “Koan 1” is securely situated as the album’s closer. And it’s a great tune, but its grandeur comes a little too early. With the understandable exception of “Tiptoes in the Parlor,” none of Walking Field’s selections feel individually slight, but the record’s cumulative effect does produce a lingering hunger for additional sustenance.

In pop and rock terms, saying that a LP “leaves ‘em wanting more” is often really just identifying the band’s good sense to not wear out the welcome. That’s not the case here. But Cashion and Willen have both arrived at this very promising new juncture from a pop/rock sphere, so perhaps they have just cautiously elected to not weaken their debut with the padding of lesser material.

And that’s cool. Walking Field can thusly be best described as a delicious appetizer, and hopefully they’ll be bringing a satisfying second course to the turntable in the not too distant future.


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