Illegal Moves

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New York quartet Sunwatchers make instrumental music that exists where the spiritual reach of free jazz and the screaming chaos of psychedelia intersect. Bandleader Jim McHugh was a founding member of the late-2000s freaked sounds collective Dark Meat, and he carried on their deep-fried blend of structure and skronk when he uprooted from Athens, Georgia, to New York City in 2010 and began working towards what would become Sunwatchers. Wildly prolific, the band quickly established their untethered sound over the course of multiple releases captured both in the studio and in live performances. Illegal Moves is their third studio album, and its seven selections capture the group at their tightest and most electric state of sonic and psychic connectivity yet. Album opener "New Dad Blues" charges out of the gates with a high-energy riff in a twisting time signature. The entire band is locked in and playing at full force, with McHugh's wah-wah guitar lines interlocking with Jeff Tobias' blasts of saxophone. The rhythm section is part of this telekinetic playing as well, with drummer Jason Robira and bassist Peter Kerlin pushing the song to its edges but never faltering in their airtight syncronycity with the rest of the band. Much of Illegal Moves keeps up this incredible display of exuberance and stamina. The synth-dotted "Beautiful Crystals" leans more towards Krautrock-styled repetition and cosmic upheaval, building into rushes of ecstatic guitar fuzz and frenzied sax as the steady groove of the rhythm section holds things down. The album explores a variety of different moods as it goes on. "Stollin' Coma Blues" is a dark take on folk-blues that disintegrates into gelatinous free skronk, and the peaceful breeze of "Everybody Play" carefully wanders in and out of organized forms and lilting, springy improvisation. For an instrumental band, Sunwatchers have managed to communicate sociopolitical ideas in their sounds surprisingly well. Whether it's through album titles, artwork, or just a moral code intrinsic to their playing, the band's sound suggests a struggle against corporate exploitation, and much like the earliest figures of free jazz, it wordlessly embodies the restless spirit of revolution. On Illegal Moves, this stance is best felt on the group's cover of Alice Coltrane's "Ptah, the El Daoud." Coltrane's tune from a 1970 album of the same name is a slow and lingering wander, coolly ambling between its Eastern theme and long passages of various players taking solos. In the hands of Sunwatchers, the song is transformed into a feverish protest march, building tension increasingly over its seven-minute running time until it feels like a call to arms. Illegal Moves is another strong chapter of Sunwatchers' unique voice and probably their most clear-minded presentation of their collective powers to date.

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