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Ryley Walker – Deafman Glance

Chicago-based Ryley Walker returns in 2018 with his most progressive album to date, embarking on a 41-minute journey of radiant guitar and considered arrangements. Following up on his most recent style-shifting album, Golden Sings That Have Been Sung (2016), Deafman Glance interweaves intricate guitar lines with lush and experimental instrumentation, with a prominent presence of Nate Lepine’s shimmering, harmonising flutes throughout.

Walker came onto the scene at the dawn of the decade, releasing several cassettes and the three track EP West Wind, before a well-received debut album in 2014. Across his releases, Walker has spanned the genres of alternative, lounge, jazz and blues, however the bulk of his work tends to centre on a self-described ‘rambling’ style of indie and folk music. Deafman Glance is certainly a rambling affair and many listeners may feel put off by some of its loose arrangements – at times they feel deliberately awkward, with splashes of measure changes and some disjointed sectioning of tracks. But despite its experimental nature, for the most part, Walker retains his guitar-based, dreamy, indie folk essence, with the listener guided through each track with his close, soothing vocals. His lyrics on this release are self-deprecatory in a concealed manner, as evidenced by lines such as “Wish me better luck, could use bus fare too”.

The album opens with “In Castle Dome”, a track which feels like it could fit on the end of Radiohead’s OK Computer, with a similar 6/8 feel to “The Tourist”. It’s a relatively chilled out track, hardly reflecting the more progressive nature of the rest of the album. But it works as an accessible opening track to lure a listener in. Walker’s vocals are soft enough just as to lead the listener through his tripped-out landscape, yet bold enough to declare “But you don’t want to meet, anyone you know”.

The second cut of the album, entitled “22 Days”, verges on coming unstuck at times. It features a chirpy electric guitar line to open, before progressing into sweet, jazzed-up chords in its chorus. But at six minutes in length, it could have benefited from co-producer LeRoy Bach (Wilco) demanding it be tightened up, regrettably a consistent attribute of many of the tracks on this album. The sonic quality of the production falls short for the most part – despite Walker’s close vocals, the songs feel hazy and distant.

Overall, the lyrics on Deafman Glance are one of its strongest attributes, with well-thought out metaphors such as “a laughing chicken scratch”, and repeated calls of “don’t let me spoil the fun” on the following track, balancing depth with catchiness. The finish of “22 Days” is a driving one, for a few short moments, before receding back into its understated final seconds, transitioning into the following track, “Accommodations”. A definite highlight on the record, it leaps from a jarring three-chord progression to an amazingly simple bass/vocal melody, turning the song into somewhat of a labyrinth. The bent, segmented start, coupled with dense, avant-garde instrumentation including synthesised wooden wind chimes and flutes, sums to a track which lends itself well to being left on repeat. Track four, “Can’t Ask Why” transitions from an ambient, synth-driven introduction into an arpeggiated melody, gradually layering its progression up to the four minute mark. After a wall of feedback, an understated and clipped walking Elliott Smith-esque blues riff is brought in on electric guitar, taking this track to another height. However, the obfuscation of this part of the song, in part, restrains this cut to limits of Deafman Glance’s sound, retaining the tranquil mood of the entire album.

“Opposite Middle” was one of the lead singles from the album, fitting into the ‘heavier’ half of the LP. It is another highlight of the album, deriving a fast, progressive main riff with sprinklings of 2/4 and 3/4 bars, and interwoven bass and guitar lines. Lyrically and melodically, the track feels close to “22 Days”, yet it clocks in at almost half the length. “Telluride Speed” acts as the sonic climax of the album, building from sultry flute lines to short interludes with glitchy, fuzzed out guitar, to a choppy progressive folk ending. This conclusion incorporates jazz scales, clashing chords and perfectly matched drumming (in regards to the guitar work) to create a landscape of tension, broken only by a completely fresh groove with fuzzy blues guitar and pronounced flurries of flute lines reminiscent of Swedish rock band Dungen.

“Expired”, along with the interlude “Rocks on the Rainbow” and the closing cut “Spoil with the Rest” tend to take a more standard form, in line with the opening track, save for some more intense drum passages in “Spoil”. These tracks leave a bit to be desired in terms of groove and excitement, but they certainly still hold their own as solid, albeit more folk-like, songs.

Deafman Glance is a wonderfully complex, self-restrained and considered indie folk record, with energy certainly in its middle section. Looking at the album as a whole, Walker’s effort here should be commended and should age well with repeat listens. The dense, yet soft arrangements of flutes, guitars, and vocals all reveal more with each listen. But its rambling quality means it ultimately demands a high degree of patience on the part of the listener.