Hellbound Train is a two-disc, 28-track retrospective collection assembled by guitarist/percussionist/composer Steve Tibbetts surveying his four-decade (non-exclusive) tenure with ECM. The guitarist calls it "not so much a best of" as "The Best Steve Could Do." It cuts across albums from 1982's Northern Song to 2018's Life Of in non-chronological order. Tibbetts was looking for aesthetic consistency here. He took the first and last ten seconds of all his ECM compositions, mapped them out across three keyboards, and made label names with them. He played the ending of every song with the beginning of every other song until a plot began to reveal itself. He considered his pre-ECM classic Yr its own thing, and didn't include it here; likewise his two '90s/early-2000s collaborations with Tibetan vocalist Choying Drolma and Å, his 1998 duo offering with Knut Hamre.
The lion's share of these cuts are drawn from the three mid-period albums Big Map Idea (1989), The Fall of Us All (1994), and A Man About a Horse (2002). The subdued, labyrinthine "Full Moon Dogs" finds Tibbetts' and percussionist Marc Anderson buoyed by two additional bassists as congas and kalimbas meet acoustic and electric guitars, with wordless vocals from Claudia Schmidt and Rhea Valentine hovering in the mix. Added are five tracks from A Man About a Horse, wherein Tibbetts juxtaposes the opening ringing tones of his acoustic 12-string with swirling, overdriven yet controlled feedback on his electric guitar and organic, processional percussion -- check "Black Temple" and "Glass Everywhere." Following this immersion, Tibbetts returns to music from The Fall of Us All. The title track showcases how the guitarist inverts sounds using more layers of percussion, added basses, tabla, and episodic, bluesy 12-string runs. He expands on that palette with "You Cat," from 1986's Exploded View, as Anderson's layers of hand drums fall atop and around his shapeshifting multi-string drones and chord patterns.
Disc two's opener is "Chandogra" from 2010's Natural Causes. Warm reverb and percussion frame Tibbetts' flamenco- and blues-tinged acoustic runs complete with drones and multi-string octave shifts. The five tracks making up the disc's centerpiece were drawn from Big Map Idea -- arguably, Tibbetts' most intimate album -- beginning with an inverted, impressionistic reading of Jimmy Page's theft of Bert Jansch's version of the traditional "Black Mountain Side." Excerpts from "100 Moons" and "Mile 234" underscore Tibbetts' nocturnal, blurry approach to these compositions as steel drums, vibes, congas, tablas, and more exchange lines and silvery polyrhythms under the guitars. The two tracks from Northern Song, his 1982 ECM debut, don't appear until later in disc two. "The Big Wind" and "Aerial View" showcase the guitarist at his quietest and most inquisitive, exploring modes, scales, and drones as devices for melodic invention. That exploration of interiority continues throughout the rest of the disc with tracks from Safe Journey, Life Of, and Natural Causes. In sum, Hellbound Train serves as an excellent introduction for newcomers and a sublime mixtape for fans.