Guitarist Nels Cline has generated a high profile since becoming a member of Wilco, but it’s his solo work that defines him -- he can always be counted upon to thwart expectations. Initiate is the fourth album by the Nels Cline Singers, a power trio with Devin Hoff on contra and electric bass, and Scott Amendola on drums, percussion, and electronics. Initiate is a double-disc recorded by producer David Breskin and engineer Ron Saint Germain. The first disc is a studio recording, the latter was cut live in San Francisco in 2009. Disc one's second track, “Floored,” kicks off with Amendola's drum kit followed by an exploratory fusion funk groove with Cline moving angularly around Hoff’s electric bass (think Tony Williams’ Lifetime). “Divining” is a hallucinatory track that commences acoustically with mbiras and double bass before Cline's acoustic enters. It gradually mutates texturally and dynamically to become an open-ended electric jazz-cum-world music orgy, as wordless vocals and layers of percussion move it toward a far freakier geography -- it's a more dangerous-sounding exploration of terrain that Pat Metheny is familiar with. “Grow Closer” mutates around various Latin tropes and rhythmic patterns occasionally drifting into North African modes. “King Queen” explores the early Santana band’s ability to jam around a theme with killer organ by guest David Witham. Cline responds aggressively and imaginatively to the band's shapeshifting, hypnotic rhythms.
Whereas disc one changes moods and directions with studied perfection, disc two enters dissonant rock and jazz terrain from the jump. “Fly Fly” begins as a swinging jazz tune that quickly evolves into a sick, twisted, guitar trio freakout that nearly lifts off. “Raze” is molten hard rock, with feedback, squall, and scree allowed nearly free rein. “Blues Too” is an homage to Jim Hall that employs his wide harmonic sense while speaking with Cline’s knottier, more complex melodic interests. There’s a beautifully rendered cover of Carla Bley's “And Now the Queen” and a new reading of “Thurston County” (off 2008’s Coward). This live disc is far more satisfying for its wide-ranging sonic expeditions and spiraling architectural drama. The disc closes with a smoking version of Joe Zawinul's “Boogie Woogie Waltz” -- from Weather Report's underrated Sweetnighter LP. At over 14 minutes, it takes its time developing the tune’s spooky groove, but with electric guitar, acoustic bass, and drum kit, it goes further afield; it transcends harmonic constraints while exploiting its rhythmic barrier to the breaking point. It sounds like Jimi Hendrix fronting WR. Arguably, Initiate is the most fully realized project Cline has devoted himself to yet, and extends the musical frontiers the Singers are capable of not only engaging, but conquering.