Graded on a Curve: Rivener, (S/T)

The New Haven, CT-based duo Rivener describe their work as “lysergic free-rock improvisations,” and it only takes a listen to verify the astuteness of that claim. After a pair of tape/ CDR releases, they’re making their long-playing vinyl debut with a highly communicative and wholly satisfying eponymous effort. Across six tracks the pair engage in elevated abstract back-and-forth, and it’s all out September 1 through Twin Lakes Records and These Are Not Records.

Rivener is Paul Belbusti, who has recorded extensively as Mercy Choir, and Michael Kiefer, who plays in Myty Konkeror and has also served as live drummer for Aussie Michael Beach. For their new album Belbusti is credited with guitar and keys and Kiefer with drums (both add percussion to the scenario), and they manage to tackle a combination of noise-imbued psych and out-jazz-flavored no wave in a manner that avoids overplayed tropes.

Tellingly, neither member is divorced from more trad rock forms. As said, Kiefer has worked with Beach, an undeniably song-oriented guy, while the notably heavy Myty Konkeror is still accurately tagged as rock. Likewise, Belbusti’s Mercy Choir is self-described as a songwriting project, amassing a sizeable discography. This is all worth mentioning as Rivener’s free-rock doesn’t spew forth in a savant-like gush. Proficiency (though not flashiness) emerges amid the abstraction, and elements of tangible rock form enhance the loose flow of their overall approach.

Of their two prior cassettes, “Fires in Repose” found them more inclined to stretch out, hitting lengths of 11 and 16 minutes, with a shorter piece in between. On last year’s “Svengali Gaze” none of the three selections went beyond ten as the duo explored rock structure a little more, but with ultimately no weakening of their outbound appeal.

With Rivener, they continue to sharpen their effectiveness. Opener “Noiren” seems to start in media res, quickly formulating a psychedelic edge through the ripples of Belbusti’s guitar (he also provides a bass-like framework) as Kiefer surrounds him with jazzy, but thoroughly non-sophisto, expressiveness. Roughly halfway through there’s some wiggle-wobble reminiscent of ’60s-ish tape manipulation, and the track redirects into a section with Kiefer leading the charge, though the shift is not about standard rock momentum.

Rivener obviously have ties to the form, but they thankfully don’t sabotage matters by succumbing to triteness or tropes, and when Belbusti does elect to play around with something resembling a riff in the later portion of the album’s first extended track “It Takes a Pillage,” he does so in off-kilter bursts. The cut begins with rather agreeable motions vaguely redolent of the African mbira before turning toward a no wave direction; a few brief spots had me thinking of the skronk thunder of Rudolph Grey’s Blue Humans.

“Rainbow Turned to Stone” leans into Eastern-tinged psych, but does so adroitly, and the highpoint is a potent guitar torrent that’s followed by a passage of warm drone; really, the only complaint is that it’s over too soon. “Xool” is also short, but it maximizes its duration, building to a crescendo accented with amp grind and then quickly trailing off.

“Discoveries of Fire (Saints, preserve us)” is the record’s other long cut, and its first half is something of a Kiefer showcase as the pair conjure a mood of foreboding. The intensity gradually increases, but instead of a predictable explosion, they hover around the point of ignition, with Belbusti peeling off a few bold leads before the track fades out.

Those leads serve as a harbinger for closer “Tsardana”’s excursion into full-on (and again Eastern-leaning) psych-rock. The emphasis on recognizable form here delivers a nice twist to the set’s prior attention to abstraction, though there are still pleasing tendrils of exploration throughout. It caps a record that’s consistently intuitive but never feels random. With Rivener, Belbusti and Kiefer have added a fresh chapter to the free-rock book.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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