The folks in Shark Quest don't say a lot. During this Wednesday night practice at Grove Willer's house way back in the woods of Chatham County, the phone gets passed around a lot, the unerringly sweet Sara Bell holding it up, pleading with the four men in the band, saying, "Come on, guys, talk this time, really." A minute of wrangling passes before Chuck Johnson--the relative newcomer in the room, having joined Shark Quest three years ago after longtime guitarist Scott Goolsby left--eventually grabs the receiver. He's dissecting the transition that took the tunes on the band's first album in four years, Gods and Devils, from the score for a series of films by and about legendary underground sculptor Bruce Bickford to Jerry Kee's Mebane recording studio.
He starts with the obvious, retracing Bell's footsteps, carefully explaining that "most of the music for this record was developed for a film." Questioned, though, Johnson at least edges towards specificity: "We had to rearrange the music to fit from the score to a song, of course. We had to restructure them so that the parts would stand alone on their own, away from the film."
It's not that Johnson doesn't have anything to add about the music. Minutes before, he casually explained to Bell--acting as a temporary quote conduit--that writing these songs for a score "allowed the dynamics a lot of time to develop, like on 'The Rosetta.'"
"The Rosetta Barrage," the album's pulsing, ringing entree built from bass, drums, guitars, banjo and mandolin, marks the first Johnson piece Shark Quest has recorded. The song is an epic, too, a complex, building composition whose concluding crescendo matches the most compelling work of neo-classical instrumental rockers Godspeed You Black Emperor, with smatterings of Tortoise excursions and backwoods temperance added for good measure.
No, it's not that Johnson doesn't know or have any thoughts on his Shark Quest debut. It's just that he sees no need to hype or overanalyze a band that resumed recording only after he, an admitted fan, asked to join. Talking just isn't very important for Shark Quest this time around the familiar album-release circuit.
But Gods and Devils speaks, spins and stuns for itself--a winding, 43-minute opus of seven think pieces, each alternating between brooding, noise-hinged moments and their corresponding, brightly composed melodic eclipses.
Nearly seven minutes in, "Barrage" climbs from a sulking, slinking bridge with multiple guitars bouncing off of each other--some brilliant and ringing, some lingering through a devastating hint of reverb. Seconds later, Willer creeps his way back in, hammering a simple, downplayed march, letting the band build as faint sheets of noise emerge from a new guitar. The next two minutes are a long, hard climax and a pensive, layer-by-layer comedown, in two minutes framing every reason how and why this is Shark Quest's best record to date.
Many of the songs follow a similarly long-winded approach, reaching the six-minute mark in what seems like record time. That's saying quite a bit, considering that this is Shark Quest's most improvisationally-centered album to date. Not a note seems wasted, even though very few variations of the winding, multi-note melodies go uncharted.
For Bell, who formed Shark Quest with Laird Dixon nearly a decade ago following her fascination with a tape he had made as Mordecai, the chance to vamp and to let these songs run their course at last was the biggest challenge and enticement of the band's work with the Bickford documentary, Monster Road, and, in turn, Gods and Devils.
"We had a lot of time, and we had to fill up so much more space," explains Bell. "And we just weren't able to do that before, to open up like that."
Gods and Devils also allowed band members besides Dixon, who had written or co-written every piece in the Shark Quest catalogue, to assume the songwriter's role for the first time. Johnson, guitarist for Spatula, contributed two songs and co-wrote one with Dixon, while Bell--current Regina Hexaphone and ex-Angels of Epistemology principal--lent three.
"We weren't sure what would happen, playing songs that Laird didn't write," Bell says, audibly smiling before adding, "So it was exciting, because we can hear that there is something different about this band as a whole, even without Laird writing all of the songs."
Rest assured, though, one doesn't have to be a member of that "we" to get that excitement from the longtime-coming Gods and Devils.