A little over one minute into the first track of Ambit, the 2014 Cuneiform label debut album by the Cellar and Point, and you already know you're hearing something extraordinary. Led by drummer/producer Joseph Branciforte and guitarist Christopher Botta, the N.Y.C.-based septet pulls sounds and influences together from across a wide musical map, starting immediately in the opening moments of "0852," which kicks off with a staticky electronic rhythm contrasting with sparse, crystal-clear vibraphone, until the sudden entrance of floor-shaking Moog bass, deep pummeling drums, and...banjo. That's right, banjo. In a world whose musical styles include hick-hop and psychobilly, you might imagine that Branciforte and Botta are staking claim to a new flavor of the week -- drum'n'bluegrass -- but on "0852," like all of Ambit, they aren't merely throwing contrasting styles together for clever effect. As co-composers and co-arrangers for the group, their artistic conception is far more unified and original than that. This rather thoroughly scored music (although electric guitarist Terrence McManus unleashes some impressive jazz-rockish soloing now and then) has been described as "garage-chamber," a term that only begins to capture the striking stylistic amalgam of "0852," as Kevin McFarland's warm cello melody is joined by McManus' soaring ethereal guitar and Joe Bergen's reappearance on those sparkling vibes. The track encompasses both immersive, swelling ambience and arpeggiated, throbbing propulsion, simultaneously marked by sharp clarity and imbued with gauzy atmospherics. And the album has hardly begun.
Branciforte and Botta co-engineered (with Andy Taub) Ambit's recording sessions, while Branciforte produced, edited, mixed, and mastered the album, and the result is a truly kaleidoscopic sonic journey. The balance between acoustic instruments and electronics is clean and pristine, and abrupt shifts from expansive soundscapes to interludes of startling immediacy command the listener's attention -- as when "Arc," with lovely string melodies from McFarland and violinist Christopher Otto, suddenly transitions at the track's midpoint into clipped, layered motifs from all the players, including Rufus Philpot's limber electric bass. After a sublime interlude of ringing and looping guitars seasoned with pizzicato strings, the ensemble builds with deliberation to revisit the tune's punchy, angular middle in a brief and sudden finale. The two-part "Tabletop" bristles with energy in its interlocking polyrhythms, dizzying rush of segues, and variegated instrumentation, while the dark arpeggiated "Ruminate" creates truly chilling atmospheres and "Purple Octagon" cruises steadily forward on a motorik rhythm, with foot on the accelerator and head in the clouds. The group covers Webern (as darkly as "Ruminate") and a Ligeti piano etude (given a dreamlike ambient treatment), before dramatically expanding upon "0852" territory with another two-parter, the nearly ten-minute multifaceted "White Cylinder." The title track is an altogether fitting closer, with deep reverberations produced in the rotunda of the Bronx's Gould Memorial Library exemplifying the Cellar and Point's spirit of aural exploration. Ambit was several years in the making, and the patience and effort involved have resulted in one of 2014's finest albums of challenging, engaging, and genre-defying contemporary music.