Sam Moss – Eight Constructions

Sam Moss - Eight Constructions

Berklee student and erstwhile Connecticut resident Sam Moss has been spinning out prolific levels of virtuosic instrumentals – 5 solo recordings in less than 3 years – since 2008. With the philosophy of a jazz musician and the technical mastery of John Fahey, Moss is as fine a candidate as anyone for becoming the steel-string acoustic guitar’s 21st century torchbearer; hearing such spontaneous and frequently unvarnished compositions in a world powered by electronic instruments, digital add-ons, and Pro Tools software is truly a freeing enterprise.

2009’s The Moon Tears It Down was a tour de force for Moss and his principled aesthetics; all of its tracks were laid down with a single six-string and minimal overdubbing. The results were mesmerizing, as Moss deftly maneuvered around the fretboard with a flurry of movement so as to coalesce his bass lines, harmonies, and melodies in a simultaneous fashion. What the album lacked in textural nuance and variation, it made up for with technical astonishment and palpable ardor.

To kick off 2011, Moss has issued his follow-up statement to The Moon…, a tidy eight-song EP (or concise half hour LP, depending on your viewpoint) that finds him expanding his sonic palette, albeit slightly, with some 12-string guitar and banjo. With the exception of Jordan Fuller’s guest appearance on the saw, all of the instruments were once again performed exclusively by Moss without the use of any studio enhancements. The solitary and isolated moods of The Moon… remain largely intact here, with Moss doling out layers and layers of shimmering fretplay that are sometimes as ambient as they are hypnotic. The biggest detour, though, comes from an increased blues presence, with Moss going so far as to include a truncated rendition of Blind Willie Johnson’s Depression-era gospel tune, “Let Your Light Shine On Me” and two other songs that reference their old-timey influence in their titles.

The album’s first track is also its longest: a two-part creation that, visually, is as disparate as a Midwestern snowstorm and a Deep South heat wave. Titled “Improvisation/The First Time I Heard Kensington Blues,” the song begins with a series of gently rippling arpeggiations, allowing Moss to work his magic up and down the length of the guitar’s range. This eventually gives way to a more playful and prickly melody, where bagpipe-esque drones and fleeting encounters with chromatic intervals threaten to unravel an otherwise cheery affair.

Though he undoubtedly excels at the type of music that pairs urgency with introspection, the best moments on Eight Constructions come when Moss journeys into less familiar terrain. “John Henry” is a shockingly lethargic tune, where Moss’s uneasy bottleneck slide work and the lumbering tempo stand in stark contrast to the pulsating reveries of other tracks.  Truthfully, it’s ideal soundtrack material for any documentary that examines the decaying urban landscape of the American South. By way of juxtaposition, “New Shellac Blues” has Moss showing off some formidable lead guitar chops. As gratifying as it is to hear a bona fide solo, however, the track’s real apex comes in the homestretch when Moss begins to scrape, scratch, pound, and pummel his instrument with the sort of chaotic and cathartic intent that any fan of the blues would applaud for its rawness.

For a man who can so fluently fill up every iota of space with sound, Eight Construction’s greatest achievement might come at its close with “Empty Streets” – a song that captivates with its silence and rhythmic restraint. Like the Main St. of some American ghost town, there’s little movement, but maximum eeriness; in the case of Moss, it comes in the form of a sighing saw and the moaning bend of a solitary guitar string. Not impressive in its own rite, but deeply affecting when you consider what once was.

Sam Moss has not completely overhauled his sound or approach to songwriting, but Eight Constructions shows him taking the necessary steps to evolve as an artist.  At the very least, we should all continue to listen in awe as his fingers dance up and down the fretboard. When you then consider that the man also has an innate understanding of dynamic contrast, harmonic tension, and musical phrasing, it almost seems too good to be true.