Boomkat Product Review:
The first release on Jim O'Rourke's legendary Moikai imprint in over two decades, 'Spectral Evolution' is a defining statement from Portuguese vanguard Rafael Toral, an album of subtly orchestral, jazz-inspired guitar music that's been slowed to a vertiginous crawl. Using his arsenal of hand-made synths to sing like birds around stretched, steel-wound drones, he evokes Bach, Loren Connors, Gavin Bryars and Rhys Chatham on a longform piece full of conventional chord progressions and alchemical sleights of hand that will have you reeling, and no mistake.
Toral's been through a number of discrete phases since he emerged in the early '90s with 'Sound Mind Sound Body' and 'Wave Field', injecting rock's vigour and emotionality into often cold, academic electronic music. Since then he's described his musical outlook as "post-free jazz", and spent time developing his ‘Space Program’, an ensemble of self-built electronic instruments that helped him evolve his understanding of place and silence. Toral drew a line under that project in 2017 after 13 years of experimentation, and has been working to reconcile his past and present, bringing back the guitar and re-examining the glacial, elongated tonal work he investigated early in his career. 'Spectral Evolution' is his most complete and advanced recording in years, billed as his "quintessential album of guitar music" but inhabiting a unique spot in his catalog.
Unashamedly romantic, Spectral Evolution pulls its momentous chordal shifts from jazz, using standards like George Gershwin's 'I Got Rhythm' and Duke Ellington's 'Take the "A" Train' (plus what sounds to us quite a lot like Bach) to dictate the course of his vacillating compositions. If that's hard to imagine, it only gets more knotty from there, as Toral interrupts the calm of his tidal drones with chirping oscillator squeaks and squeals that he's painstakingly tuned to harmonise with the strings. Bruising the sublime, Toral reminds us that music is an endless conversation with the past, both our own personal history, and a shared cultural memory that's not always easy to decipher.
After a brief, naked intro, Toral sinks into 'Changes', an outstretched composition that sounds like multiple threads being tied together in real-time. At the root is a sequence of dramatic chord shifts made from bowed guitar drones that have been shaped to sound like orchestral flourishes. We can't help but think of Gavin Bryars' enduringly influential 'Sinking of the Titanic' here, but the chorus of whoops and wails from Toral's arsenal shuttle it into an idiosyncratic outerzone, sounding electronic and acoustic at once, like bamboo flutes, amphibian mating calls and robotic birds responding to each chord. Each track dissolves into the next, and while Toral makes distinctive gestures, the album plays like a continuous thought.
He interprets 'Take the "A" Train' more literally on 'Take the Train', letting the guitar chords linger and using the Space ensemble to re-imagine the trad standard's unmistakable lead. Peculiarly tuned, it's not obvious at first, but squint a little and you can just about make out Toral coaxing us into re-evaluating how we listen to jazz. If innovators like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler were able to develop a new language using familiar syntax, then Toral follows a traditional vernacular, nodding to folk forms as well as avant developments and environmental musics in a mode that’s both soothing and unexpected.
On ‘First Long Space' Toral takes a moment to deconstruct his soundscape, the guitar drawing discernible, post-rock outlines, leaving us with near silence for a few seconds before another episode begins. These spaces (two long and two short) are important markers that break up each episode, palate cleansers that prepare us for further chordal complexity. While 'Fifths Twice' is gooey and sentimental, 'Your Goodbye', is led by distorted, filtered guitar syllables, sounding like Toral's attempt at half-speed blues, played alongside sticky orchestral sweeps. Before the set's over completely, he can't resist taking us to church, mutating his noises into celestial organ blasts on 'Second Short Space'.
‘Spectral Evolution' is the kind of album that practically urges you to go in again and again to tunnel through its layers and excavate its myriad references and philosophies. It's Toral's most exceptional, essential album to date - the kind of masterpiece worthy of re-booting Moikai to life, the same label that brought us all-timers like Nuno Canavarro's 'Plux Quba', Pita's 'Get Out' and Fennesz's 'Plays'.
An early marker for AOTY, no doubt.