I know I keep repeating myself, but what a year it’s been for solo(ish) guitar albums. Just when I thought all the barn burners had been launched, Ava Mendoza drops one last bomb on 2021 with New Spells. I’ve been excited about this one for a while, especially since Mendoza shredded to heaven on William Parker’s stellar Mayan Space Station, but I wasn’t prepared for the journey New Spells would lead me on. Strap in.
Opener “Sun Gun,” one of two original compositions on the record, kicks into gear straight away, Mendoza bending notes at odd angles for maximum expression. Her playing style is deeply affective, always skirting this line between exploding with emotion while blazing through impossible, virtuosic sonic shapes. “Sun Gun” leans more on the former, with gently-distorted notes pushing outward with a sullen, heady glow. Certain passages veer into introspection, imbued with a restrained lament, but Mendoza gnaws away at this inner wreckage and finds a quiet place to catch her breath.
Her adaptation of Trevor Dunn’s “Ampulex Compressa” is the best example of walking that knife edge on New Spells. Dunn’s piece grows into this massive space, filling a flickering void with phantom contemplation. Angular riffs dodge walls, shooting off in unexpected directions, punctuating quickfire meditations with short spurt harmonics. It’s a dizzying, twisting odyssey that coalesces into a pristine monument of steel.
Mendoza never lets up at any point on New Spells. Her other original, “New Ghosts,” is a 10-minute romp that shreds all of last year’s grim reminders and restructures them into a glorious sonic exorcism. Each note weighs a ton, Mendoza’s expressiveness saturating every sublime scratch and leading listeners toward the most disjointed promiseland imaginable. Every section is magic.
Perhaps my biggest takeaway from New Spells is how instantly recognizable Mendoza’s playing is. She plays with an abandon that feels as though everything could implode at a moment’s notice, but it’s such a ruse because, with her ability, she’s always in control. Raw contours line the edges of her sound, but she plays with such a polished prowess that no idea or sound is out of reach. There’s only one Ava Mendoza. Nobody else can play like her, and in a banner year for guitar records, New Spells might just be the best of the bunch.