A few months on from the re-release of ’13’, ‘MRI’ offers up the second volume in Australian label Room40’s ongoing series of reissues of some of Swans guitarist Norman Westberg’s most difficult to obtain solo material. As with ’13’, many of the contents here have been previously presented as ultra limited handmade editions self-released by Westberg himself, but in this case ‘MRI’ goes much further by throwing previously unreleased new material in there as well amongst the three expansive and sprawling tracks that make up this album. The methods employed by Westberg when recording these three tracks are also very similar to those on ’13’, with Westberg running his guitar through an array of delays and effects while recording entirely as one improvised take, before touching things up in Soundforge.
There’s a focus upon enveloping yet minimalist guitar ambience and drone more than anything else here, and the contents certainly sit a fair way away from what a lot of Swans fans might expect. Originally inspired by an audiologist’s referral and his subsequent experience with the titular technology following hearing loss he was experiencing, ‘MRI’ was originally released as a single 15 minute long track in 2012 as a limited run of 75 copies, each accompanied by a unique MRI scan of Westberg’s head. Emerging forth from a warm swell of looping guitar harmonics, the opening track sees Westberg running his Telecaster through two amps to create hypnotically ebbing atmosphere, though it isn’t long before the warmer tones drop away completely, to be replaced instead by ominous distorted textures, the mesmerising vibe taking on a distinctly darker tone.
While the re-emergence of a droning bleed of harmonic drones brings the light back into the foreground during the track’s outro section, any sense of security feels shortlived, particularly as Westberg employs his delay pedals to introduce some queasy background pitchshifting. Also originally released during 2012 as a limited run of 75 CDs, ‘410 Stairs’ gets considerably lighter and more optimistic over its 20 minute running length as chiming melodic guitar chords blur into a gently lulling web of feathery textures. If there’s a slightly tense undertone in the monotonous minor key guitar motif that forms the backbone of the momentum here, it feels counterbalanced by the track’s more gentle and contemplative nature.
Finally, ‘Lost Mine’ offers up previously unreleased new material recorded by Westberg in 2015 as an echo of the processes employed on the previous two tracks. Given the three year gap between their recording dates, it manages to slot in effortlessly alongside them whilst also offering a progression on a theme as a haze of cycling guitar harmonics gradually veers off into more forbidding territory, only for things to eventually subside into more soothing waters. More than anything else, this is music designed to be listened to in one complete sitting, where it can really do its work on both your ears and head. Kudos to Room40 for making this music accessible to a wider audience with this excellent reissue.