Versatility is prized among instrumentalists. From Nashville country sessions to New York improvisational explorations, the player who can play it all is the player who will likely have gigs. For instance, while cellist Erik Friedlander has played with John Zorn's Masada Chamber Ensemble and with reed adventurer Ned Rothenberg, he's also worked with Korn, Kelly Clarkson, and the Mountain Goats. While Colin Stetson's star is rising with his new solo opus,New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges, he's long kept busy with bands from Bon Iver and the National to Angélique Kidjo and Arcade Fire. This is true for guitar soloists, too, but in this realm, the mastery of multiple forms seems to have less to do with a paycheck and more to do with proving you're more than some new-school John Fahey acolyte. From Sir Richard Bishop's pan-everything albums to William Tyler's expansive Behold the Spirit, some of the best guitar music being made right now is that which takes the world in and sounds it back out through a pair of busy hands.
Thankfully, no one bothered to tell young Irish guitarist Cian Nugent about that approach: His first widely available album, Doubles, comprises two side-length tracks that take definitive and defined approaches the distance. There's no emphasis on how much he can do or how much he has studied his forebears; instead, he smartly focuses on developing a pair of immersive environments that are continuously compelling for more than 20 minutes at a time. He nails it. The first side, "Peaks & Troughs", is an ambitious solo workout for guitar and, eventually, synthesizer. As its name suggests, the tune rises to loud, heavy strums and falls to near-silent picking. A more accurate title might have been "Knots & Threads", as Nugent's emphasis seems to be on the horizontal orientation of his music-- that is, the volume matters less than the way he arranges and links his phrases. At points, his hands are busy wrangling great messes of notes that eventually thin out into beautiful and relatively simple statements of melody. Sometimes, though, Nugent is content to examine one note or chord until it resolves into silence, as if he's staring at a huge, tangled ball of yarn but concentrating only on a small, isolated knot somewhere near the middle. That movement creates an inescapable momentum, meaning that, when this track starts, Nugent's deliberately dynamic approach makes it hard to ignore.
That same kinetic energy applies to the grand and arching "Sixes & Sevens", a piece that Nugent developed with a large ensemble of friends playing drums, strings, horns, and keys. A piece of quiet triumph, "Sixes & Sevens" builds around the obvious, continuous guitar line that runs throughout its 24 minutes. Nugent tucks the revelation that he's been listening to music beyond past masters of instrumental guitar into those near-orchestral flourishes. He hints at a free-jazz maelstrom one moment, eerie organ drone music the next; much later, there's a touch of shoegaze rock thanks to some long-tone distortion and a bit of Japanese minimalism via the restraint of the percussion. The perfectly ebullient passages are a mix of Stravinsky, hard bop, and unrepentant pop; given its redemptive sound, it's where the listener finally understands that versatility is something the young Nugent values, too.
If Doubles has a fault, it's that Nugent makes no attempt to hide his influences or to do something they haven't previously done. This is, after all, a form that has often been beleaguered by its own reverence and subservience to idols; its recent renaissance, however, suggests the time for showing you can do what someone else once did has begun to recede. Fahey, Rose, Jones, Blackshaw-- all of the top-shelf names in this realm have gone for extended ruminations in the vein of "Peaks & Troughs". And Jim O'Rourke stands as the acknowledged master of epics such as "Sixes & Sevens", which rise steadily and delicately to glorious but restrained crescendos. Nugent doesn't reinvent either idea on Doubles, but he doesn't have to; he's inarguably mastered them and made them his own, and that's enough for a start.