Artist: Xander Naylor | Album: Continuum | Genre: Progressive rock, Jazz-fusion, Post-rock | Year: 2020
From: New York, USA | Label: Chant Records
For fans of: Return to Forever, early Frank Zappa, Magma, The Mars Volta
There is no shortage of instrumental EPs and albums put out by guitarists. Many of these releases tend to be self-indulgent and focused on technical soloing. Because of that trend, it’s always a refreshing change of pace when I run across someone like Xander Naylor, who functions more as a composer who just so happens to play guitar, rather than a guitarist composing pieces for his instrument.
Continuum is Naylor’s debut full-length record, and it reminds me of Steve Hackett’s solo material. Not so much in sound, but more so in that while there’s plenty of skillful instrumentalism, it isn’t to the neglect of structure or vision.
“Lunar Acropolis” opens Continuum with an ominous drone, and the clattering percussion has distinctive electronic and hip-hop nuggets. A languid, Indian-accented guitar wafts through, leading into a wonky clean guitar line backed by wordless vocals. Around the three-minute mark, though, oppressive saxophones right of Van der Graaf Generator segue this piece into a darker mood. The saxophones return in a less-doomy capacity later on, adding some jazzy elements. Despite the sheer number of ideas in this six-minute song, it feels cohesive, and each piece fits together nicely.
A disorienting clean guitar line echoes to open up “Export for Screens”. Weird embellishments of burbling synthesizer and plinking muted guitar add to the eerie feel. Right as it feels like this moment is starting to drag on a little too long, saxophones enter and shift the mood from plodding and drunken to nervous and jittery. Though enjoyable overall, the closing reprise of the opening theme is unnecessarily long.
“Surrender” opens gently. Dreamy guitar and cloud-like, breathy sax warmly lift this piece before abruptly crashing down into metallic walls of distortion, thundering drums, and jagged bolts of saxophone. Vocals are once again employed smartly, in a nearly zeuhl-ish manner. The guitar on this song acts mostly as a supporting element, building a vague, impressionistic wall beneath sax and vocal melodies.
The strongest song on this album might be the brief instrumental “Pursuit”. It opens with a high-octane injection of guitars and sax somewhere between Frank Zappa’s early work and The Mars Volta’s mid-career output. Tight, math rock-style riffs give way to brief, astral interludes to allow some breathing room. A squiggly synth line mingles alongside guitar intrusions during these calmer moments. Though not as intense as the main riff, the atmosphere in these moments remains uneasy.
“Riddlin” starts with a stuttering sax-and-drums rhythm. The song momentarily devolves into chaos as stray sax honks and askew guitar notes float about. As the song builds back up, this is one of the few moments where the guitar soloing drags on for longer than it should. “Riddlin” closes strong, though, with pounding drums, squealing saxophone, and a martial, Magma-like pulse.
Continuum ends on a solid cut. “Leverage” is another jumpy piece with strong forward momentum. The bass buzzes in harmony with the low bleating of a saxophone as a higher-pitched sax wails over top.
Despite all the good things I’ve said about Continuum, it does occasionally fall into the trap of songs running too long and overstaying their welcome. “Export for Screens” and “Surrender” both drag on in their closing moments, and “Who Laughs Last” just never gets going.
All things considered, though, those are some minor gripes. The music on Continuum is inventive, propulsive, and almost always surprising. If you’re looking for a slab of proggy instrumental rock with jazz leanings, this album is definitely worth looking into.