By Sarah Bennett
By Adam Lovinus
By Jena Ardell
By Nate Jackson
By Gustavo Arellano
By Nick Keppler
By Nate Jackson
By Alex Distefano
Sir Richard Bishop might be a gypsy jazz guitarist because he could probably and sometimes does play like Django, but he's got gypsy restlessness in more than his fingertips; he's the Indiana Jones of the fingerstyle guitar, taking research excursions—sure they are!—to least-visited places to scout music for his brother Alan's superlative Sublime Frequencies label (home of the hits from Iraq, North Korea, the Far East, Africa and more) and to scout pure technique from the odd oudist on the street. Now in his cheerful prime, Bishop is pushing past hummingbird fingerpicker—evidently champion John Fahey even told him that he plays like the devil—to some sort of cosmic guitar archetype. Eight-armed Bishop and his undulating improvisations: Sandy Bull ducks his banjo in respect, Jimmy Page touches his temple, Ennio Morricone makes a private note and even Ravi Shankar dips an ear.
This year's Fingering the Devil—for Bishop, entendre is mandatory counterpoint—is an all instrumental/apparently mostly improvised album best described with the choicest showgirl vocabulary: lush, lively, supple and exotic and . . . Too much more of this might get Koo's in trouble but R. Crumb liked records from the same places, and he called those places the "torrid regions," for obviously considered reasons. And it's fiery stuff: in interviews, Bishop explains how he likes to improv his live sets as he goes, which is a pretty intimidating accomplishment itself—trapeze-artist excitement but a different kind of high wire artist. I used to think Can was serious headphone chow but one-man Bishop is possibly more psychedelic—though in an ayahuasca way, not a dosed-sugar-cube way, or maybe in an aurora-borealis way; this guitar tone is so pure and light that all the plants in my house swivel toward it.
And then take Bishop's guitar and put it behind a curtain somewhere and he comes out with Elektronika Demonika, a below-the-waterline experimental record that sources captured satellite broadcast and rafts of found sound into 40 untitled minutes of post-Patriot Act folk—Brian Eno's music for airports with no-fly lists, or the creepy/cool vibe of the Conet Project's still-unknown mystery shortwave spy stations fogged up to fill an entire full-length album, or the unverified Torre Bert recordings of transmissions from dying cosmonauts—a real spooky-sounds record for this spooky time. Completely different kind of record—can't hear much fingerpicking on it.
But you can sense it is the same set of hands behind both: Bishop once described his music as putting the physicality of Peckinpah behind the imagery of Jodorowsky, and there he clearly explained just how cinematic a sense of composition—even improv composition—he really has. Fingering and Demonika share an unpredictable liquid momentum, an almost biological rhythm that would pace dearly against a surrealist film (Bishop even named an album Salvador Kali—he's so courteous about explanations), if surrealist films could handle Bishop's meticulous production values. "Soundscape" is a pretty worthless word—just means a lot of slow reverb, and maybe some over-contrasted b/w photography on the sleeve—but Bishop—an Arizonan who, like all Arizonans, understands the true dynamic of geography—tracks both recent albums with an actual sense of summit and slough; he wig-wags over his guitar like a finger tracing a river on a map. In fact, I wonder if Bishop even takes a map on his trips to Algeria or Indonesia with that guitar somewhere in the cargo hold; somehow I kind of doubt it.