Bill MacKay

Fountain Fire

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Fountain Fire is the true follow-up to 2017's fine Esker, Bill MacKay's debut long-player for Drag City. "True" in that the guitarist and producer cut and released SpiderBeetleBee -- his second effort with guitarist Ryley Walker -- that same year. Like Esker, Fountain Fire was recorded completely solo with MacKay playing guitars, piano, organ, bass, percussion, and requinto, and singing on a pair of cuts.

Musically, this eight-song set travels in a variety of directions simultaneously. Opening single "Pre-California" is an overdubbed exercise in layered solo guitar(s) work with distorted, warm electric strumming, gently reverbed single-string picking -- in a modal scale that resembles surf music if it originated in North Africa -- and multivalent slides adorning its margins. "Birds of May" is a vocal track that pays obvious homage to both Bert Jansch in its approach to playing and Nick Drake in its singing and lyric images. It's haunted, spare, and resonant, making the listener ponder why MacKay doesn't sing more. The other vocal cut here, "Try It On," is a dead-on cross between desert Americana and baroque English folk à la the Strawbs and/or the John Martyn of Sunday's Child. "Man & His Panic," with its magnificent interplay of banjo and acoustic guitars, suggests the twin influences of John Fahey and Jack Rose, while "The Movie House" offers an aural illustration of what might happen if you crossed Zuma-era Neil Young with the studio wizardry of Sandy Bull. "Welcome," in waltz time, is based on simple chord changes, Western themes, and pillowy psychedelia. "Arcadia" is an all-too-brief meditation on controlled feedback and open-drone playing with a slide and power chords, making it an album highlight. It all culminates in "Dragon Country," the set's longest and most odyssey-like track. Sharded, rhythmically strummed acoustic guitars are played in a folk style that recalls Davy Graham's fluctuating minor-chord improvisations and are woven into a seemingly liquid brew of Dick Dale-esque electric fingerpicking, dreamy slide, Eastern modalities, and stacked, staggered overdubs. Though it's over six minutes in length, it feels like it flits by in an instant. As a whole, Fountain Fire is seamless; no matter how disparate each track is from its companions, they all fit into a strategic outline where diverse playing and production styles are aesthetically employed with warmth, space, texture, and color; they commingle in a narcotic ebb and flow that gently and quietly burrow into the listener's consciousness to remain there whispering. Together with Esker, this album serve to create a multi-dimensional portrait of the artist whose limits to self-expression are non-existent.

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