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Jenks Miller's Spirit Signal

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One could forgive Jenks Miller an unfinished thought or two: As the lead guitarist of elegant alt-country act Mount Moriah and the creative center of bleeding-edge metal project Horseback, Miller ranks among the most productive musicians recording not only in the Triangle but in all of independent music. In just more than five years, between those two bands and under his own name, he's amassed nearly a dozen full-length albums and even more singles, EPs and strange, short-run projects. This year, his release schedule has felt relatively slim, especially compared to 2012's seemingly never-ending stream of new material. Yet he's at least partially responsible for one of 2013's breakout LPs (Mount Moriah's Miracle Temple, their second album and first for Merge), a three-hour box set (Horseback's A Plague of Knowing, which combines his rarities with a new 44-minute monolith) and his second proper solo record, the elliptical, emblematic and mostly instrumental Spirit Signal.

These six tracks play largely like a field journal of Miller's interests and ideas rather than a definite, album-length statement. The opening pair of numbers, for example, find Miller improvising on a slide guitar—as the respective titles note, initially in "a blues style" and then in "a noise style." The first piece finds his fingers working like those of blues chipper Loren Connors, breaking apart bits of melody and letting the notes hang against a drifting, eerie stillness. Its counterpart depends upon the inverse: A piercing drone sits just at the horizon, poised to overwhelm with a hum that feels as bright as the sunrise. But Miller keeps it at bay by breaking its sustain, splicing fractured seconds of silence into its high-pitched hum. Taken together, the tracks offer an exploration of mirror images, a real manifestation of an idea jotted onto some loose leaf.

Miller subsequently howls into a harmonica against the captured sound of the Haw River's running water, providing an interlude ahead of the next set of guitar numbers. With its flickering theme and dual approximations of Neil Young and Ali Farka Touré, the title tune suggests a late night spent in the midst of a Mount Moriah session. As with that band, Miller's playing is chiseled and restrained, but it's open-ended here, too, the full stops required in a rock act collapsing on themselves until there is only voided space to fill. That mood fits perfectly as a preface for the album's most masterful span, "Through the Fog." Again and again, Miller starts to play a silvery guitar lead and then stunts it, allowing his thin lines to pierce the veil momentarily before washing back into the haze. You could listen to it happen forever.

These pieces feel consistently impressionistic, a quality that Miller is able to sustain on the album's 22-minute closer, "Miró," a coda longer than the rest of the album combined. Through a claustrophobic web of distortion, Miller sings in a barely-there deadpan that fights with a hangman riff for space. In its own chimerical way, the track suggests the work of long-running New Zealand noise firebrands The Dead C looking to cosmic Americana for new inspiration. It's a fitting synthesis of Miller's various outlets, then, a purposefully illusory suggestion of ways forward.

Miller has released one other solo album, a 2008 set of electric guitar improvisations called Approaching the Invisible Mountain. While that disc established Miller's interest in arid and foreboding guitar lines and served as the prelude to Horseback's proper arrival, the next year's The Invisible Mountain, the material felt inchoate and uncertain. It was as if Miller were filching for ways into weirdness; the music sounded like a means to an end, and the material suffered for the self-consciousness.

But Spirit Signal is delightfully less deliberate. It is a panoply of thoughts that serve as stylistic neighbors to what Miller does in his other bands, not a public workshop where he sketches what he eventually hopes to call home. Spirit Signal finds Miller already at home, at ease with his obsessions and his own slow approach toward them.

Label: Northern Spy

This article appeared in print with the headline "Stay restless."

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