Shawn Hansen and Nathan Pape are both determined to push the boundaries of what we think of when it comes to their respective instruments. Joys of All Barriers is the culmination of years of refining and honing their individual practices to end up in a place where this record sounds unlike anything else. Acoustic guitar and synthesizer/organ have been combined countless times before, but not like this.
Using familiar instrumentation and traditional folk tunings, but then pushing those approaches to their limits breeds a collection that veers from closely-held textural explorations to total sonic mayhem at the drop of hat. These unexpected shifts are a vital part of the duo’s expression, keeping listeners engaged and curious throughout. “Some Years are Quite Ragged But Would Bear the Mark Of It” opens the windows to let the summer air roll in, and while there’s serene calmness to start with the methodic synth and guitar interplay, the storms are just over the horizon. Hansen’s meditative runs coalesce into pure aural hypnosis, channeling Riley-esque dexterity. Meanwhile, Pape’s guitar work is on fire, grinding the strings into a sonic morass flying through the air at breakneck speeds, in tonal opposition to Hansen’s melody-soaked trance. This dichotomy where the two push each other into strange, often disparate directions is a great appeal of Joys of All Barriers.
In certain moments, as on opener “Forward Undertakings of Nourishment,” it’s as the duo is playing in separate rooms, only vaguely aware of what the other is doing. Tenuously held together, like a ramshackle bridge solid at the ends but barely held together the closer it gets to the middle, ready to break apart and plunge into the deep ravine below at any second, the piece weaves its way to connection. Pape is relentless, strangling the guitar like his life depends on it. Hansen meets him in that space, though, using a different, more minimal approach to build the same tension until both take a deep breath, and let the discordant notes hang in the air. In the end, it’s oddly calming as it drifts off into gentler seas.
All barriers mean no barriers here and the freedom Hansen and Pape embrace without abandon is cathartic and inspiring. Joys of All Barriers is wholly its own thing. Beyond listening to it and being enveloped in this angular, mesmerizing universe of sound, the duo put forth new ideas that stick long after the album ends. The more I dig into Joys of All Barriers, the more I have to think about and the further I want to explore.
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