By: Sarah Moore
Charlie Hunter is a busy man with a Midas touch. Altitude (Thirsty Ear) is the third in a trilogy with his Groundtruther project, and the results are golden. Hunter and drummer Bobby Previte are the constants, and each of the albums features a different collaborator. The previous wildcards were Greg Osby (Latitude) and DJ Logic (Longitude). John Medeski takes the guest musician slot on this double disc.
Disc One, "Above Sea Level," refers to the electronic aspect of music while the second disc, "Below Sea Level," refers to acoustic sounds. On the first disc, Medeski's arsenal of instruments here includes the Hammond B-3, Wurlitzer, Moog and Mellotron, among others, so the synthetic perspective especially pops. The track titles come from some of the tallest structures in the world, perhaps echoing the larger (than the second disc) sound found here. "Above Sea Level" has a cluttered vibe but mostly steady, clear-cut melodies and rhythms. In "Pyramid of Giza," pharaoh-summoning organ supports the electronic guitar wails (by Hunter) and electronic samples (by Previte). The electronic tones remind the listener of Medeski, Martin and Wood's successful End of the World Party. Hunter's seven-string electric guitar goes from treble picking to a deep, resonant stabilizer. Hunter and Medeski trade off in some call-and-response action with a Middle Eastern flair. "Everest" begins with sounds as close to the brown note as anyone wants to get, and with such little oxygen at this elevation there comes some hallucinatory audio as well. "Seoul Tower" returns to the funky swagger for which Medeski and Hunter are known.
Disc Two is broken into short tracks with ambient crashes, noise and spooky, percussive explorations. The all-acoustic mood is like spelunking through uncharted territories, and fittingly the track names are broken into different geological and geographical names. Basically, think of the terms you learned in the plate tectonics section of your high school science class (e.g., "Subduction Zone" and "Downwelling") and most likely they are listed as track names. The first three tracks, averaging about 30 seconds each, are haikus with the names "Death Valley," "Salt Lake" and "Dead Sea," three desolate, lifeless places. The sonic meanderings are akin to what life's initial formation sounds like in Disney cartoons: erratic, evolving, and sparse. Hunter's low-end of his acoustic 7-string combined with a smattering of chords on Medeski's acoustic keyboards and the increasingly impassioned tribal beatings by Previte develop into a repetitive frenzy in "Submarine Canyon." By the time the disc reaches "Seafloor Spreading Hypothesis," the trio has made their way into a here-but-not-here funk. They approach a steady beat, Hunter and Medeski hinting at driving funk and abruptly backing off. The low-ends are in unison and Previte's drums are frenzied. "Mariana Trench" is a little further along, and it flows from a delicate, Spanish flavored solo guitar by Hunter to a congealed, uniform arrangement.
The avant-garde nature of this disc, while it can be a tad dense for the average funk-loving Hunter fan, is well-worth wading through for its rewards. On the whole, Altitude completes the trilogy in a successful, cerebral manner.
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