Alan Courtis and Davis Grubbs’ dual guitar record Braintrust of Fiends and Werewolves zigzags between blown-out riffs and sunny strumming, spiraling and breaking into spiky shards. Exploration is second nature here, as it is across the two artists’ practices. Courtis’ band Reynols, active since 1993, is known for frenzied noise, while his improvisations with artists like Pauline Oliveros grow from heady, static-infused drones. In the genre-hopping post-rock ensemble Gastr del Sol, with Jim O’Rourke, and his numerous solo and collaborative endeavors, Grubbs has taken a winding approach, letting phrases spin out and meander. As a duo, the two improvisers traverse a variety of styles, sculpting Courtis’ looming squalls and Grubbs’ sloping melodies into songs that balance frenetic and balmy moments.
The two guitarists recorded Braintrust of Fiends and Werewolves during a once-in-a-blue-moon meeting in Brooklyn, while Courtis, who hails from Buenos Aires, was visiting New York. According to the album’s liner notes, the matchup was seamless and fruitful. “Each time we stopped and started again it was a different gig, a different situation,” marvels Grubbs. “Even after laying down a couple of hours of recordings, it felt like we could have kept going and going.” That ease comes through in their music—the two artists bounce off of each other’s ideas like they’re deep in conversation.
Yet Courtis and Grubbs’ songs are often rocky, juxtaposing clashing textures. One guitarist will play a razor-sharp chord that slices through the other’s rounded and delicate shapes, or one will pluck a simple, bluesy tune as the other makes a swarm of buzzing noise. These unexpected pairings create turbulence, driving the album’s drastic shifts from gentle ruminations to foreboding howls.
Despite such contrasts, the music moves fluidly. Even the most jagged refrain is pleasing to the touch, and the dense fuzz that swirls around each rhythm and riff feels organic. The forlorn strumming of “Hinterhalt” simmers amid feverish feedback and psychedelic fraying and devolves into a raspy, spun-out drone. On “Room Tone of One’s Own,” each guitarist picks a sunny theme, weaving them together into a buoyant, lyrical instrumental. “Varsovia y Esparta” darkens the bright-hued thrums of “Room Tone of One’s Own” and morphs them into an eerie lullaby fit for a horror film.
But the apex comes when Courtis and Grubbs stretch out. The sprawling, 16-minute closer “Airborne Particles of the California Central Valley” unites the fragmented ideas that appear throughout. It opens with spooky scratches and menacing, wobbling plucks, grows into a web of blues riffs cloaked in cloudy noise, and falls away with lightning-bolt chords. The song sputters and spurts, revs up and puts on the brakes. And in all those twists and turns, Courtis and Grubbs find a hypnotic groove, letting their guitars lead them to whatever comes next.