Gitbox Rebellion’s Pesky Digits Reviewed
In the first of a new series celebrating the 30th anniversary of New Zealand record label Rattle, GARY STEEL takes a look at its debut release from 1991.
This March, New Zealand’s own “art music” record label, Rattle, celebrates 30 years – in which time it has released hundreds of sublime artefacts of New Zealand culture.
Originally the project of filmmaker Keith Hill, graphic designer Tim Gummer and producer/engineer/drummer Steve Garden, the label sought to establish a specific aesthetic footprint with attention to artistry and care in every facet of the process, from the careful curatorial selection through to the sonic details of its engineering and the look of its artwork.
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Rattle was a bold move, because it had no commercial ambitions, and there really weren’t any similarly-focused local endeavours to provide tips. But it’s easy to imagine how inspired they must have been by their very first project, an album that sounds as fresh and charming in 2021 as it was on its release 30 years ago.
Gitbox Rebellion was/are a guitar ensemble created in 1988 by Nigel Gavin. By the time Pesky Digits was recorded at Progressive Studios in 1991, they had been through Robert Fripp’s Guitar Craft course (held in Auckland in 1990) and unsurprisingly, adopted some of the guitar master’s techniques.
Fans of Fripp’s group King Crimson may recognise the odd familiar chord sequence here, and the influence of the kind of picking style he used in the 1980s iteration of that group is manifest.
Fripp may have also influenced the group’s decision to explore alternative tunings and ways to unleash wider dynamics than one would expect from a bunch of acoustic guitarists – 11 of them, in this instance.
Despite all that, Gitbox Rebellion is not simply Fripp-lite, and while I assume that all members contributed to the compositions (writing credits are not given), it’s Gavin’s compositional personality that asserts itself most strongly.
His voice (metaphorically speaking) is at its most instantly memorable on the quirky, catchy ‘A Connecticut Yankee In The Court Of King Arthur’, a piece that was deemed strong enough for Fripp’s League Of Crafty Guitarists during Gavin’s tenure in that ensemble. Some might find the piece just a little close to novelty, but I think it strikes just the right balance between fleet-footed playfulness and the kind of humble articulation Leo Kottke oozed on his best work.
Pesky Digits – which was reissued as a nice LP replica cardboard CD remaster in 2011 – contains 18 index points but five of them are brief fragments of less than a minute. Most of its other pieces are around the two-minute mark, with only one track attaining a near-marathon seven minutes’ length. (Unless you count the ‘Pesky Digits Suite’ that takes up the second half as one piece, that is). I’m not sure why the tracks are so short, but instead of creating a fragmentary impression, it actually increases the sense of variety and allows for more exploration of different approaches to ensemble guitaring.
I’ve said this before and it bears repeating: if you think a whole album of acoustic guitars is boring, try putting this in your platter, press ‘play’ on a decent rig at the right volume, and I guarantee you’ll be surprised: the melodic, timbral, tonal and musical variety on a track like ‘Two Iguanas’ means that it’s constantly engaging. This track feels to me like a kissing cousin to the enchanting quirk of the Penguin Café Orchestra and its lovely, simple melody and both picked and strummed guitars are a guaranteed pick-me-up. It even swings a little.
I’m not sure if the subject of ‘Threnody For Francisco Mendez’ is the poet, the weightlifter or the boxing gym owner, but its poetic nature suggests the first of those. Some Fripp-like cross-picking soon falls away to reveal a melancholy melody before its resumption and a distinctive solo that’s suggestive of Mike Oldfield’s more elegant work.
‘Leaving Home’ is even more affecting, its deeply reflective guitar beautifully articulating the heart-breaking theme, and unconsciously evoking the kind of stillness that ECM label stalwarts Ralph Towner and John Abercrombie often seemed to aspire to.
Also notable is the final track, ‘The Hypocrites’, with its soloing on the guitar’s lower strings set against the group’s lattice of cross-picking. The piece that perhaps best espouses the group’s experiments with dynamics, however, is the aforementioned ‘The Penny Drops’, which spends a good amount of its seven minutes and 25 seconds carefully creating a mood with its spiralling parts, before suddenly bursting into its own brief heavy metal moment of surprising loudness. Briefly excerpted, however, the track would have made a delicious background for a slightly mysterious television travelogue.
Gitbox Rebellion, on Pesky Digits, found a way to make up to 11 guitars work together in a way that avoided all the potential pitfalls of such an aggregation. Its layering of the individual parts complemented and enhanced rather than simply adding volume. While the repetitions are reminiscent of classical minimalism, what the group achieved on its debut was spectacularly at odds with just about everything else that was going on at that moment.
Nigel Gavin and his players can rightly be proud of this achievement, which provided the perfect first release for a new label itching to establish its unique territory.
- Check out Gary Steel’s AudioCulture piece on Rattle here.
- This is the first in a new series in which Gary Steel will attempt to methodically review every single album in the bulging Rattle catalogue.