On All Time Present, Chris Forsyth’s most ambitious album yet, he continues to make the case that there’s yet more to be wrought from the electric guitar. Though the Washington Post not long ago reported the instrument to be on the virtual brink of extinction and rock has been declared dead too many times to count, the Philadelphia guitarist finds new spaces for his instrument between familiar ecstatic structures and the experimental horizon. Forsyth sings here only on one track, mostly bolstering his reputation as a tasteful and inventive shredder, updating the neon acrobatics of Television’s Richard Lloyd with a host of maneuvers both big and little. Despite the occasional nod to rock formalism, All Time Present achieves a scope only hinted at on Forsyth’s previous full-lengths.
Forsyth’s playing is less reinvention than re-entrenchment, finding his voice inside the permanent revolution of guitarists yearning to combine their six strings in previously un-struck combinations, like mystic transliterators committed to a mathematical religion. And while Forsyth sometimes cranks up the wizardry and spits lightning through his strings in the traditional note-filled manner, there are just as many moments that don’t depend on Forsyth’s flash. On the acoustic-driven “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” the song climaxes with a repeating phrase that seems to get quieter as it goes.
As a member of the experimental trio Peeesseye for much of the 2000s, Forsyth located himself deep in the celestial noise fringe, making music that actively challenged form. With 2013’s solo album Solar Motel, though, he reframed his playing inside the vocabulary of classic (or at least canonical) rock. Epic and tasty solos over punk/motorik/hippie grooves followed. Forsyth has continued his allegiances with guitar experimenters, too, including a striking ongoing duo with spectral minimalist Loren Connors, but his subsequent albums leading the rotating Solar Motel Band have remained decidedly inside, their energy easily classifiable as rock.
Billed as a solo project, All Time Present channels the flaring Solar Motel energy on extended workouts like “New Paranoid Cat” (the newest iteration of his standard “Paranoid Cat”) and, especially, the nearly 20-minute album closer “Techno Top.” Most cuts feature semi-fixed Solar Motel dwellers, too, including keyboardist/saxophonist Shawn Edward Hansen and bassist Peter Kerlin alongside the soulful and melodic drumming of Ryan Jewell. The results are something different, more a fully stocked geodome than a motel.
“The Past Ain’t Passed” is nine minutes of raga-like wanderings, tension turning to release in an explosion that seems to happen with the slowness of leaves changing colors, aided greatly by Jewell’s flowing percussion. The album’s highlight is the layered and looping “(Livin’ on) Cubist Time.” Over a flickering guitar grid with no rhythm section at all, Forsyth weaves between foreground and background while Hansen’s saxophones hover at the edge of cognition, fluttering and vaporous. It’s a sublime performance that follows its own rules, both strange and conventionally beautiful.
Rosali Middleman’s singing on “Dream Song” and Forsyth’s own vocal dabbling on “Mystic Mountain” might be heard as additional textures. Despite a limited range, Forsyth isn’t a bad singer or lyricist, copping a serviceable attitude. But if his voice isn’t nearly as striking as his guitar playing, its presence serves All Time Present by adding another layer to his creative vision. The album’s many moods might also be heard as a series of refusals, and a reflection of Forsyth’s career—the refusal to just be a guy with a guitar, or just play fast or loud over a band, or quiet and abstract without one.
In recent years, plenty of guitarists have made the leap from local noise-weirdo post-freak-folk undergrounds to more orthodox forms with (perhaps) the potential for many more listeners. It’s not a hard equation to understand, creatively or commercially. Forsyth’s contemporary Steve Gunn, whose own experimental trio GHQ existed in almost exact parallel to Peeesseye, has found a voice and audience as a singer-songwriter by matching his playing to moody lyrics. But Forsyth, who also uses familiar and sometimes rocking modes in an attempt to do unfamiliar things, has carved out his own path. All Time Present is guided by a restlessness that is both utopian and utilitarian, where classic rock is only one point of the always incomplete map and the electric guitar can still spark something better than joy: freedom.