The Stumps – “The Black Wood”

“The Black Wood” is probably the sort of album I shouldn’t even be reviewing. I’ve always been more than a little leery of psych releases, believing them to mostly be beyond criticism, due to the fact that they’re simply not intended for in-depth examination. In some ways, it’s like attempting to discuss the positive and negative culinary facets of a hot dog. Still, with three heavy-hitters like Antony Milton, James Kirk, and Stephen Clover involved together as The Stumps; I want to take a closer look at their improvisational drone/psych album “The Black Wood.”

The Stumps Unfortunately, there’s just not a lot for me to work with. Although “The Black Wood” begins with some interesting sounds, its unclear whether the players have any sense of direction whatsoever until the third track, where they seem to fall back on some sort of one-percenter biker movie groove. It’s competently ass-moving, but not really the sort of thing I’m hoping for, or expecting.

Is it that I’m trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, or am I legitimately seeing talented musicians hitting far less than their best? It’s hard to tell.

The fourth track (untitled, like the rest) is an even lower point, sounding like nothing more than fooling around in the studio– it’s the sort of thing on everyone’s studio tapes that you fast-forward through to find where things actually get good. It’s hard for me to imagine that The Stumps want listeners to take this seriously at all.

At last, we hit the fifth track, easily the best of the bunch. The collection of individuals from the first four tracks has now been replaced by a collective whole, which does as much for making this 13-minute track look good as it does to throw shame on the others. Gone are the useless noodlings, overused jazz-type drum patterns, and motor-psycho riffing. Instead, listeners are reminded that these are the guys who brought about the incredible electronic compositions of Seht; the delicately-pieced soundwork of Sandoz Lab Technicians; and the exploration and creative spirit common to pretty much every Milton disc. Even through the tape hiss, the promise of something greater for “The Black Wood” comes through.

That’s why the next couple tracks are such a let-down. More rumbling, less listening, anda reliance on haphazard tossing-about of sounds– it’s “keep the recorder rolling” as the apparent sole directive.

The final two tracks are better, but really not enough to redeem this disc. The second-to-the-last track introduces a squirrely melodic line that contrasts well with wind-howl slide effects, strumming, snare whooshing, and tape noise. A large synth sound intrudes, bringing listeners to the final track, which appears to have field-recorded rain… or maybe the tape is just getting worse, it’s the same effect regardless. Heavily-reverberant notes contrast with ring-mod prepared string noises while expansive bass holds court in the sub-current below. It’s a nice ending, but again, just not enough to heft the rest of this soggy beast on it’s back.

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