Ari Cherksy is a New York based guitarist who has played on a number of improv / creative recordings over the last few years. Fear Sharpens the Dagger is his second effort as a leader. On it, he is joined by Peter Schlamb on vibraphone, Joanna Mattrey on viola, Christopher Hoffman on cello, Ross Gallagher on acoustic bass, and Craig Weinrib on drums. Cherksy expands beyond providing just 6-string contributions by also incorporating synths, organ, mellotron, toy piano, ukelin, electronic bass, percussion, loops, and effects. The result is an album with a huge, rich, and involved sound that is unlike just about anything else out there. The closest comparison that comes to mind would be to Nathan Hubbard’s recent recordings, but even so, Cherksy heads in different directions.
The general approach across these 13 short pieces is polyphonic, usually with guitar simultaneously sharing the lead with at least one other instrument. Beyond that, Weinrib is a major contributor with his uptempo free-jazz drumming underlying even the slower tracks. On top, Cherksy adds studio effects, backwards masking, overdubs, samples, and various accentuations. There is a tenseness present because, from minute to minute, you are never quite sure what he might throw at you. These left turns and detours are not jarring, however, as they lie in the details of the recording. And a close listen at high volume might be necessary to appreciate these subtle facets.
Taking a step back, the album as a whole could easily be classified as improv with its liberal use of extended techniques, though it comes across as being carefully constructed and probably could not be reproduced live. Nor does Chersky provide a music that is totally alien – certain tracks are recognizable as jazz, maybe even jazz fusion or psychedelia, but with more than a few inflections and twists. Nevertheless, Cherksy is at his best when he is, either by composition or otherwise, offering a complex, labyrinthine, and layered set of contrapuntal melodies that frantically shift from theme to theme.
Fear Sharpens the Dagger is not be to taken lightly. There is too much going on herein, and the stylistic elements are surprisingly broad. This recording is easily an album of the year candidate.