While I know nothing of Lisbon, and little of much of metropolitan Europe, it’s reassuring to know that Rafael Toral has tenured in New York, and is likely informed by a visual fascination that the city, as spectacle, rightfully demands. Blinking, seething, spiraling, the textures and hues of light and material proceed from and sustain isolation, not so much as individual minutiae but as a conglomerate force that relegates non-visual capacities to the background and the viewer to a type of unilateral universe. Toral’s compositions for guitar lay claim to a similar force of static, eternal motion, not so much music as an aural experience that proves trans-sensational. At such moments as his material unfolds, there may well be nothing beyond its purview, all light and circumstance consumed by its dense and pervasive scope.

A testimony to the premature triumphs of precocious genius, Early Works attains well to its documentary aspirations, tracing a lineage of development back 15 years from the guitarist’s current endeavors. It would prove difficult to define progression and influence in a musician who moves fluidly from ambient to sonic improvisation, and the retrospective material here carries the same impressive development of recent releases, but provides nonetheless a sort of referential bookend. Early Works predates the drone aesthetic of Sound Mind Sound Body, while its precision in ambient soundscapes is not far removed from that defining last year’s brilliant Violence of Discovery and Calm of Acceptance.

In terms of diachronic achievement, Early Works carries the same timeless qualities as the best ambient recordings of the minimalist and electronic schools, bound less to technology than innovative process. I’m disinclined to characterize Toral’s music as minimal because seldom is it austere; his dense loops ebb closely on the backs of one another in an ebullient pretense of renewal, and there is generally so great a variety of orchestrated sound as to sufficiently drown out the environmental remainder. He coaxes an atmospheric range from his guitar, touched by reverb, sustained drone, and digital processing, and to this adds flights of improvisation that are, like narcotics wrapped in Wonderbread pellets, deceptively simple, so flawlessly do they emerge from the bed of dense sound.

Staggering as it is to imagine a 20-year-old plotting this material out on 4-track cassette, the six tracks on the album lack the essential cohesion of Toral’s more deliberate recordings. Early Works offers two perspectives, shifting decidedly from the shorter mood pieces of the first five songs to the improvised syncopation of “Sand Precision,” a 16-minute exploration of guitar and bass interplay that leans closer to a Derek Bailey style of experimentation than the predominantly ambient material. This final opus, sparse in a style reminiscent of Toral’s collaborative efforts, is close in sentiment to the improvisational meanderings overlaid on the sequenced material in the opening tracks. Particularly when layering upon harmonic guitar feedback, Toral has produced some of the most unapologetically beautiful recordings to emerge from the recent avant-garde set, and Early Works maintains his distinct position, somewhere amidst an experimental context shaded by brooding romanticism.
Tom Roberts