Does the weird title of trumpeter Nate Wooley’s second outing with his Columbia Icefield quartet suggest a departure from the icy, atmospheric beauty of their self-titled debut? If so, it’s a ruse. Ancient Songs of Burlap Heroes retains the band’s ambient soundscapes, cold distance, and gradual developments. The difference is that those developments are more pronounced, adding up to firmer compositional structures.
That’s by design. The album looks to folk song for inspiration. It’s not always easy to hear, given the aforementioned gradual development. (Wooley compounds the disguise with amorphous, nameless interludes that allow himself, guitarist Mary Halvorson, pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn, and drummer Ryan Sawyer to drift seemingly aimlessly.) Explore the interior of “A Catastrophic Legend,” however, and an honest-to-God melody emerges from Wooley’s trumpet. Between variations of that melody, the players turn to long improvisations (Alcorn and Halvorson together, then Halvorson alone, then Wooley and Sawyer) that crystallize into forms in their own rights.
There are three such large-scale pieces on Ancient Songs, each evolving more coherently than the last. One of the untitled interstitials (track 5) finally captures that trajectory in miniature (although the last 40 seconds of its three minutes dissolve into gentle waves of white noise). It’s nice to hear that such focus is possible for this band, but really, the lengthy buildups are the point of this music. They take their time, examine the nooks and crannies along the way, and unearth pleasures in choosing the longer paths. Even when they reach the structural destination, they’re in no hurry to tie it all up: The final long tune, “Returning to Drown Myself, Finally,” gloriously extends past its confines to take up part of the final untitled piece.
Learn more about Ancient Songs of Burlap Heroes on Amazon.