Jeff Barsky has been quietly releasing alternately sublime and noise-ravaged guitar albums for years and this latest album finds him returning to LA's oft ahead-of-the-curve Already Dead Tapes (where he last surfaced with 2015's Flickering). Normally, I would not describe an edition of 100 tapes as a major release, but most of Barsky's solo work has historically appeared on his own Insect Fields imprint so Celestial Cycles will likely reach more ears than usual. Fittingly, it is an especially strong album, capturing Barsky at the absolute height of his powers. While few solo guitarists can summon dreamlike beauty from their ax as reliably and masterfully as Barsky, the centerpiece of this album is unquestionably the swirling and nightmarish closing epic "Become The Birds," which arguably recaptures the magic of Campbell Kneale's Birchville Cat Motel project in its prime (which is damn high praise coming from me).
The brief yet lovely "Follow the Moon" introduces Celestial Cycles' general aesthetic of quavering drones, flickering harmonic whines, and rippling flurries of hammer-ons and pull-offs before the album begins in earnest with the more substantial "Celestial Shift." Given the loop-based nature of Insect Factory, extended durations tend to almost always result in increased textural and harmonic sophistication and "Celestial Shift" is a solid illustration of that, as the expected shimmering beauty is nicely enhanced with a host of twinkling, smoldering, buzzing, and seesawing themes. If the remainder of the album was simply four more variations of that vision, I would be perfectly happy, but Barsky instead chose to go with a parade of cool twists and curveballs and the album is better and more memorable for it.
The lurching, blurting melody of "Movement" is especially delightful and would be my personal pick for a chart-burning single, as Barsky simply unleashes a killer theme then wisely checks out before it overstays its welcome. The next two pieces plunge the album into darker territory, as Barsky first balances beauty with blackened, grinding heaviness and tape hiss ("Infection Chain"), then abandons conventional beauty altogether with the oscillating, blown-out industrial thrum of "Low Gear Meditation." That sets the stage nicely for the main course, as "Become The Birds" gradually evolves from tenderly murmuring swells of bliss to a roiling and howling crescendo that sounds like an angry swarm of noise hornets over the course of about 23 minutes. To my ears, the whole album is stellar, but "Become The Birds" ends it with one hell of an exclamation point (and an instant classic in my personal pantheon of noise guitar masterpieces).