“I’m alive,” exclaims Ryley Walker on Rang Dizzy, the second track on his fifth solo album. The accompanying profanity suggests surprise he’s still with us, having lived an ‘eventful’ life to date. Or maybe it’s the Chicago guitarist counting his blessings. Either way, it’s true, he’s never sounded more vital, unburdened and less in thrall to the acoustic fingerstyle heroes of the past than on Course In Fable.
Recorded in just three days at Hallowed Hall Studios in Portland, Oregon with multi-instrumentalist John McEntire, admired by Walker for his work with Tortoise and Gastr del Sol, this is a self-confessed “prog album”. Inspired by the guitarist’s love of Genesis, the playing is complex, multi-layered and staggeringly accomplished, the tunings weirder than ever.
Joined again by long-time conspirator Bill MacKay, Walker plays almost entirely electrics, leaving behind his cherished Guild D-35 and deploying a G&L Broadcaster and 12-string Rickenbacker 360. The seven tracks have little in common with the John Martyn and Nick Drake inspired Anglophile folk of his most successful album, 2015’s Primrose Green. Instead, the avant-garde and improv flavours of Chicago’s 1990s underground are the main reference point – alongside Walker’s love of prog, although not, he’s quick to point out, of the “finding a magical mushroom on a mountain surrounded by dragons” variety.
The desire to spread his wings signposted on Golden Sings That Have Been Sung (2016) and 2018’s Deafman Glance is taken to its full conclusion on a record of breathtaking complexity. From the first moments of opener Striking Down Your Big Premiere, Walker and MacKay are engaged in a deep, instinctive conversation. A dizzying jazz-math riff and a pair of interweaving arpeggios, latterly given a splash of slapback delay, are complemented by some wildly extravagant soloing.
Walker’s touring partners Andrew Scott Young (bass, piano) and Ryan Jewell (drums) bring a sophisticated jazzy proficiency to everything here, allowing the two guitarists’ patterns to dance around each other in mesmeric fashion. Amid the dazzling mastery on show, Course In Fable features perhaps the most personal lyricism of Walker’s career to date, yet he’s endlessly self-deprecating, any glimpse of pretentiousness punctured quickly with humour or a sharp jab in his own direction. He’s “always shit-brained when pissed” on the opener. His evident surprise at still being on this mortal coil at the ripe old age of 32 on Rang Dizzy is wrapped in graceful orchestration, the fluid guitar phrases forming an urbane exchange across the stereo field. “I extend my hand to all probable possibilities” is the kind of line that typifies the hopeful artistic endeavour here before Walker completes the couplet with “that I may be baptised in salsa made from glaciers”, underlining the equally esoteric creative mood.
Perhaps the most complex and ‘prog’ territory is on A Lenticular Slap, which opens straight into an urgent descending riff that hints at discord. Across nearly eight unpredictable minutes, the abrupt changes in trajectory are countless. It sounds like the sort of freeform improv Walker has indulged in extra-curricular forays away from his solo career, yet every song on Course In Fable was mapped out and demoed in advance of the sessions in Portland.
Axis Bent sees previously stompbox-wary Walker enjoying the briefest of Tom Morello moments, using a newly purchased DigiTech Whammy to emit pitchshifted abstractions into the intro of a song that’s a gentle, weathered alt-folk joy. It’s one of the most orthodox entries on Course In Fable, Walker recalling warmly “When I wrote the song would breathe, It was the best I’d ever had”.
Clad With Bunk’s skittish riff recalls the opening track and mid-song, after a sublime rising thermal of strings, the band shift gears unexpectedly into a smoky blues jam, accompanied by some consummate lead playing. There are a startling number of musical ideas crammed into some of these songs and yet Course In Fable never strays into self-serving, contextless virtuosity stripped of all humanity. McEntire’s deft production ensures everything is bathed in a crisp almost hi-fi light, Walker’s nakedly untreated vocal glinting atop. Made in a Pacific Northwest autumn, this is an enlivening springtime record.
The intro of Pond Scum Ocean travels a long way out there into the experimental wilds, before a nostalgic revisiting of past triumphs on the closing Shiva With Dustpan. It’s in many ways an encapsulation of Ryley Walker’s career to date. It leans the closest of anything here towards the British folk stylings of his first two albums, yet is tinged with the uninhibited strangeness of the Chicago improv scene that drew the fledgling guitarist in as a teenager and informed Course In Fable.
Beatific reverb tails unfurl from the sweet jazzy voicings, stirring cello playing and a lonely slide part adding gravitas. It’s utterly lovely and finds Walker seemingly effortlessly balancing opposing musical worlds. In his hands, pastoral folk coexists happily with labyrinthine prog epics; earnest self-examination and exceptional musical prowess with gentle self-mocking humour and a knowing lightness of touch. For an artist so unswervingly committed to evolution, it’s unwise to consider this a destination Ryley Walker has arrived at, more a waypoint on the journey, but he’s never sounded better.