As well as reaching into the land when trying to describing Dean McPhee’s signature sound, I also seem to find myself reaching for spatial metaphors. There is something in the interaction between the spidery tendrils of his guitar lines as they spool outwards and upwards and the resonant space these vaporous entities vault into that encourages a kind of cosmological speculation: like the current standard model of the universe we adhere too, this music seems to create its own space as it travels, a space that acts like a huge echo-chamber in which the piped silver of his bright figures glimmer and vibrate.
For all McPhee’s dazzling virtuosity, the premise is actually a fairly simple one, with each of the four tracks here, and on his previous release Brown Bear, variations on a theme. But the music’s power comes from precisely this gradual accretion of detail and in the atmosphere created by his clean, sustained, style and tone. You don’t so much listen to individual tracks and construct a narrative as let the whole thing wash over you, imbibe it, the impressionistic nature of the tracks almost painterly in their effect. Which is, I guess, where the urge to recourse to natural images and metaphors come in, as you sense his method and the shape of the tracks (which are worked up over time, so to speak, then recorded in a single take – Son of the Black Peace was actually recorded in a single afternoon) are born out of open observance of the play of elements in the passing of time.
McPhee’s playing technique is based around simple thumb-struck basslines and intricate, bright clusters of notes, spiralling outwards in melodic progressions. And because of the aforementioned sense of space he creates, there is a feeling of following, of observing the contrails of guitar as they wind into the middle distance.
The mechanics of his sound, while having a feeling of simplicity, do come from a fairly unique set up, with the back of the cabinet left open to allow air pressure to escape and giving freedom for the speaker to vibrate. The cabinet is also tuned to resonate on the lowest note of the guitar which frees up space in the mid-range – which only adds to that true, and dramatic sense of McPhee playing within a vast silver-lined chamber. In terms of precursors, you might think of Fripp or Daniel Lanois (sound or production wise, really, and especially his work on Eno’s Apollo record) and also the crepuscular voyages of John Martyn who especially haunts the glorious closing moments of ‘Cloud Forest’ in which a single tone reverberates and reflects back on itself, rising slowly like a rotating double-helix. Another frame of reference I often return to, despite the relative distance in the final output, is Ry Cooder’s Paris, Texas – McPhee’s sound has some of the same poise and elegance, plus a simple intuitive confidence.
Son of the Black Peace as a title refers to the uncertain etymological origins of McPhee’s surname, and it is such a ridiculously useful signifier for describing his sound you wonder if there’s some sort of conjuring involved, a sense of name-as-destiny. And yet, despite the vaguely sinister overtones of the name, and the, at times, cold elemental purity of McPhee’s sound, this is music to bathe in.