The typical riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, Alan Licht has effortlessly straddled genre and musical tropes across a career spanning the best part of three decades, to the point where I’m not even sure how to describe him, beyond the rather vague adjective “experimental”. It probably doesn’t help that he is perhaps better known for his exemplary music writing rather than his music. Previous attempts on my part to get to grips with his sprawling 2003 opus A New York Minute, more often than not ended up with me flummoxed by the 15 minutes of radio snippets on the title track, or the staggering expanse of the second disc’s 38-minute live rendition of ‘Remington Khan’. In contrast, however, 2001’s Plays Well is a playful, gleefully ironic explosion of every rock archetype imaginable, as Licht drops 4×4 Donna Summer disco into the middle of a noisy guitar improvisation with Beefheartian vocals, twisting the conventions of experimental music into contortions. In contrast, 2010’s collaborative album with Loren Connors, Into the Night Sky, is almost pastoral, a meeting of two sensitive guitarists, even when it stretches into noise territory. In such a career context, the fact that he has also drummed with Boredoms as part of their Boadrum project comes a little surprise.
So, how does one define Alan Licht? Is he a post-punk / post-No Wave guitarist who has stretched the jarring jangle of Arto Lindsey and China Burg into fuzzed-out noise territory? Is he primarily a writer who happens to practise what he preaches? A pop jester with experimental leanings? I’m not sure even Licht knows, and Four Years Older will not answer any of these questions, despite potentially being his best-ever album. It contains two versions of the same piece, performed, as the track titles suggest, after an interval of four years and using guitar as his sole instrument. It’s also been four years since Licht’s last album, YMCA, so the experience of the album is that of witnessing the evolution of an artist framed by his own perspective.
Intriguingly, the most straightforward of the two pieces is the more recent one, suggesting that in the four years since YMCA, Licht has returned – relatively speaking – to the rock-based style of his early years. He roams up and down the guitar’s fingerboard with lightning-quick speed, resulting in a six-string drone piece that connects Hendrix to Haino by way of Neil Young and Jim O’Rourke. This being Alan Licht, of course, the guitar’s sound is gradually morphed into a bizarre, percussive onslaught that sounds more like a maxed-out drum machine than anything resembling a guitar. ‘Four Years Earlier’ is even more bizarre, as the guitar’s tone is reduced to a wonderful bleeping, blurping digital mess, as if Brian Eno of the Roxy Music years has been beamed in from 1972 to patch every sound Licht creates through one of his analogue synths. The resulting noise is as far removed from the traditions of guitar music as you can get, bringing to mind abstract electronic artists such as Keith Fullerton Whitman or the messier side of Oneohtrix Point Never’s Daniel Lopatin. As the piece builds up into a wall of freak-out drone, all connections to pop or rock or even noise conventions are severed, leaving a sonic environment that is 100% Alan Licht and little else.
Four Years Older is a mesmerising work of experimental guitar noise, made all the more startling by the fact that any expectations (i.e. that the more “out-there” piece would be the recent one) are turned on their head. Maybe Alan Licht is rock’s court jester after all. After all, I can’t escape the sense that a lot of Four Years Older was made with a wide grin slapped across his chops. Results this unpredictable are proof that humour and experimentation make excellent bedfellows.