published: 14 /
Evocative tenth album from Willard Grant Conspiracy which features the last recordings of its front man Robert Fisher who died in early 2017
There is inevitably a sense of elegy that comes with ‘Untethered’. Willard Grant Conspiracy’s front man Robert Fisher died of cancer in February 2017, laying down the last of his vocals and acoustic guitar lines on it in the days just before his passing.
There is a feeling of the passing of time on this record both in its music and lyrics, of someone looking back on his life. While the bulk of ‘Untethered’ was recorded when Fisher was dying, only one song, the title track, was, however, written after he was diagnosed with cancer shortly after completing a successful UK/Dutch tour(including two dates in Glasgow and Edinburgh which Pennyblackmusic promoted) in late 2015.
Seven of the fourteen tracks on this tenth and final Willard Grant Conspiracy album - ‘All We Have Left’, ’26 Turns’, ‘Let the Storm be Your Pilot’, ‘Love You Apart’, ‘Margaret on the Porch’, ‘Two Step’ and ‘Trail’s End’ - had appeared in bare bones drafts as far back as 2013 on ‘Dwelltime’, a tour only EP/mini-album, and others such as ‘Chasing Rabbits’ had also been presented again in early form on Soundcloud as a means of promoting that final European tour.
The Baptist-raised, Californian-born Fisher had had a long preoccupation with death, none more so than on Willard Grant Conspiracy’s 2003 fifth album and masterwork, ‘Regard the End’, which took its title from an old family motto about living one’s life accordingly with one’s eye always on one’s dying day. While Robert Fisher was very ill when he recorded ‘Untethered’, much of it may have ended up sounding the way it does even if the outcome had been better.
‘Untethered’ opens abrasively and in a squeal of distortion with ‘Hideous Beast’. Reminiscent of Captain Beefheart at his most belligerent, it combines a piercing punk blues riff with a thunderous vocal from Fisher. “I am a hideous beast,” he intones over and over, and while he later adds, “I am going to swat them flies,” revealing that there is also dark humour at work, it is, even at just under two minutes in length, the most confrontational song in Willard Grant Conspiracy’s twenty year canon.
Other songs are underpinned by the viola of David Michael Curry, who was Fisher’s regular song-writing partner in recent years, and the cello of the album's other main collaborator Jonah Sacks, who appeared on ‘Dwelltime’ and also plays in Curry’s ambient project Empty House Co-operative.
The other musicians on ‘Untethered’ were drafted in, some by Fisher and others by co-producer Curry, who completed the album after Fisher’s death. Some of these such as Pete Sutton (electric bass), Sean O’Brien (twelve string acoustic guitar), Erich Groat (mandolin) and Pete Weiss (electric guitar) appeared in early line-ups and records (‘3am Sunday @ Fortune Otto’s’, ‘Flying Low’, ‘Mojave’ and ‘Everything’s Fine’) of the band, which, a ‘consortium’, its members coming and going depending upon who was available, Fisher used to half-joke had over forty-five members. Others, such as acoustic bassist Erik Van Loo and electric guitarists Steve Wynn, Jason Victor (both the Dream Syndicate) and Drew O’Doherty, were there in its middle years when in a large ‘orchestral’ line-up it used to regularly tour Europe (‘Regard the End’, ‘Let it Roll’ and ‘Pilgrim Road’). The remainder - Sacks, Michael Tarbox (electric and slide guitar), Jonathan Ulman (drums), Aaron Charlwood (piano) and Come and Codeine’s Chris Brokaw (guitar swells) - were new recruits, joining Willard Grant Conspiracy after Fisher and Curry stripped the band down (‘Paper Covers Stone’ and ‘Ghost Republic’)and spent some years touring as a two-piece.
’26 Turns’ is an early highlight with plucked-out lines of acoustic guitar and shimmers and ticks of viola and cello, upon which Fisher recalls an encounter on a dance floor. “We were often out of time,” he croons longingly. ‘Chasing Rabbits’ is less minimalistic, pushing Erick Groat’s rippling mandolin and Sacks’ soaring cello to the front, but is equally sublime and reflective. “It’s a perfect day/a perfect day,” sings Fisher, nostalgic for another love and their lost past.
‘Love You Apart’, backed by swoops of cello and an elegant guitar line, is embedded with more surreal humour (“I want to lick all your knuckles/I want to love you apart”), while the wistful ‘Saturday with Jane’ reflects on happy weekends spent with a former girlfriend (“If I could choose/If I could choose/Saturday afternoons with Jane”).
There are strong instrumentals too in the eerie and nocturnal ‘All We Have Left’, the hazy ‘Margaret on the Porch’ and the softly waltzing, brief ‘Two Step’.
The title track comes one from the end. Robert Fisher used to say that he liked to leave his lyrics just open for his listener to put their own interpretation on them, but there is no doubt that this is about cancer. “I dreamed last night I was blown apart and busted/Sidestepped my way into the path of a hurricane,” he sings, his slow, choppy guitar backed by Curry’s swirling viola. It is as powerful as it is humbling.
The album - and Willard Grant Conspiracy’s career- is then closed with ‘Trail’s End’, a six minute orchestral instrumental, which with Brokaw’s echoing and cavernous guitar loops concludes ‘Untethered’ in the same distortion and feedback that it started.
‘Untethered’ is a fine album, as strong as any other in Willard Grant Conspiracy’s long lifespan. David Michael Curry has done excellent work in bringing this difficult project to a finish, and it is a fitting conclusion to the extraordinary and often-under-rated career of Robert Fisher.
Do No Harm
All We Have Left
Let the Storm Be Your Pilot
Love You Apart
Margaret on the Porch
Saturday with Jane
I Could Not
Share the Load