Graded on a Curve: Eternal Tapestry,
Wild Strawberries

Contemporary psych-rock veterans Eternal Tapestry practice in a branch of the style favoring seriousness of intent over faux-druggy tomfoolery. The Portland, OR group has scads of releases, but their newest considerably ups the level of ambition; Wild Strawberries, the band’s first 2LP, was recorded in a remote cabin over the course of a week and suitably finds them traveling into the aural wilderness. It’s out now on Thrill Jockey.

In tandem with the hippie movement’s proclivity for drug intake, the 1960s are designated as the apex of psychedelia. I’m not going to disagree, but I will add that most of the groundbreakers in the style took qualitative nosedives sooner rather than later by abusing not just substances but tropes swiped from blues, R&B, and to a lesser extent folk and country.

Some will decry it as heresy, but there are multiple units operating in the psych field right now that are the equal of their ‘60s antecedents, and one is Eternal Tapestry. While a few lineup changes have occurred over the years (notably Dewey Mahood leaving to dedicate his creativity to Plankton Wat), Eternal Tapestry currently consists of Nick Bindeman on guitar and vocals, Warren Lee on organ, Krag Likens on bass, Jed Lindeman on drums, and I’ll speculate Ryan Carlile is still around on sax and synth.

They’ve amassed a hefty discography, much of it on Thrill Jockey, though Guru Overload, a benefit for the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, came out last year on the Oaken Palace label. Wild Strawberries widens their scope not only in number of sides but in execution, and in psych terms it easily fulfills expectations of sessions conducted in a cabin located in a burg known as Zigzag.

Appropriately, the tracks here are given the names, frequently elaborate linguistically, belonging to plants native to the Oregon municipality’s surrounding forest; subsequently, as the record’s handle also titles the second cut, I suspect it’s not a reference/tribute to the art-house classic from Ingmar Bergman, though the moniker surely could be multitasking.

It might seem that psych and 2LPs should go together like hash brownies glazed in organic honey, but no. Too big a canvas promotes the tendency to go overboard and lose focus. A counterexample: ‘69’s Live/Dead surveys The Grateful Dead expertly walking a tightrope between energy and excess; it’s arguably psychedelia’s finest double album and unimpeachably one of the impulse’s best moments. Wild Strawberries doesn’t match it, but that’s sort of an unfair comparison; Live/Dead derived from a gig after all, while Eternal Tapestry’s latest is the byproduct of a desire to deepen collective sensibilities.

“Mountain Primrose” rises up in media res, establishing an almost tribal psych groove as Nick offers one of the set’s few vocal passages. It then hangs a sharp turn into an increasingly enveloping atmosphere combining drone, chant and freak-out, and then gives way to the aforementioned titular entry, which after a short prelude of gentle, somewhat Terry Riley-esque organ tones builds into an extended and methodically paced platform for Nick Bindeman’s outward-bound yet non-harried playing.

As the minutes unwind the cut steadily climbs in intensity, its tempo quickening just as precisely, the guitar lines basking in reverb as the music eventually plateaus (briefly bringing the instrumental prowess of the early Doors to mind) and then delves into sustained territory carrying “Wild Strawberries” to conclusion.

It’s followed by the terrific “Enchanter’s Nightshade,” the track slightly longer than its predecessor, its explorations residing not far from the ’66-’67 ballrooms of San Fran; additionally, a bit of an Eastern vibe is observable in Nick’s playing as Lee borrows deeply from the expansionist inclinations of the original era without falling victim to the hackneyed. And on his axe of choice that’s impressive.

Brother Jed and Likens lay down the bottom expressively and quite effectively; there’s nary a hint of overplaying. Carlile also contributes, the non-obtrusive sax adding layers (and thankfully never vamping) as Nick undertakes improvisational bouts featuring plentiful reverb and wah-wah. Unlike other lengthier Wild Strawberries’ selections, “Enchanter’s Nightshade” lacks detours; as it unfurls it’s easy to imagine bodies swaying and twisting, almost as in slow-motion, from inside a colorful yet dimly lit and highly fragrant room.

It leads to a significant though not discordant adjustment in direction, and for that matter span; “Woodland Anemone” is succinctly reminiscent of Riley simultaneously cozying up to komische (for the uninitiated, a wing of Krautrock) and incidental-library music for early-’70 educational/public television programming. It’s very likeable, and next is “Maidenhair Spleenwort.”

Did I say something about vivid song titles? To Eternal Tapestry’s credit, the music matches up; after an initial spurt of effects, there’s a smidge of psych-baroque organ and the asserting of a minimal (though not necessarily Minimalist) pulse as the drone blends agreeably with a celestial air (therefore, it wields edge).

Nick’s emoting is decidedly soporific, leaning into the resonantly spherical ambiance to fine result. Near the finale a tad of spacey, vaguely New Ageist-noodling arrives, and then jumps into a merger of audio vérité and what seems to be calliope. It’s here that the rhythmic duo takes five (actually more like 16); “Lace Fern” is a long cyclical dose of the komische via keyboard/synth. Guitar slowly integrates into the mix as the piece moves to the finish.

For “Pale-Green Sedge,” Nick whips off a series of bold psych-rock licks before laying-out, the organ and synth essentially hovering in an ambient holding pattern for the remainder of the duration. A drone-lover’s dream, it bleeds directly into “White Adder’s Tongue,” Nick returning as the sonic field becomes progressively more abstract, guitar and keyboards forming a wall of sound as percussion returns to the fray, special attention paid to sleigh bells and a snare drum.

The textures grow into an environment of ceaselessly choppy din; it’s certainly taggable as rock (what is likely a harmonica momentarily surfaces), though to call it rocking is off-target. The scenario levels and then reaches an expansive close, Wild Strawberries ending on a note some music scribes once and occasionally still do belittle as self-indulgent.

But not me; instead, I’ll assess it as an unabashed double album, and as such it’s largely successful. However, the great four-sided beasts, and Eternal Tapestry’s attempt misses their company by a slim margin, basically demand front to back listening. Here, a side or two at a time goes down very nicely, and Wild Strawberries recovers most of the slack by providing often fascinating documentation of its making.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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