Even among rock musicians who grew up on punk and bedroom recordings there is an unacknowledged consensus that reducing one's sonic palette yields diminishing returns after a certain point. Guitar-and-drums duos have been okay, even by the conservative standards of FM radio, but only so long as a melodic instrument is involved. Solo artists, meanwhile, have won the hard-fought battle to utilize only a laptop and a microphone and still be considered musicians, but unstated expectations about the density of sound loom, creating the present situation in which one-man bands often generate more variegated ruckus than a typical four-piece.
Long since computers rendered such biases quaint, the truth is most listeners still believe that more instruments, be they physical or digital, fundamentally beget more possibilities. What we fail to recognize when we think this way, however—and what local drummer/singer Neal Morgan boldly demonstrates on his solo debut To the Breathing World—is that musicians working with radically reduced instrumentation can uncover whole fields of sound that a large ensemble, encumbered with the inertia of options, would simply never notice.
Like anywhere unfamiliar, the sparsely populated sonic landscape explored on Breathing World (which, trust me, you have never even seen pictures of, let alone visited) is disorienting and, in equal measure, viscerally exciting. This intriguing strangeness is due to the fact that absolutely all of the sounds on the album's eight songs were generated solely by Morgan's voice and drum kit, both of which, though multi-tracked, were left essentially naked, undisguised, and unprocessed in mixing. This honesty of approach mitigates the initial weirdness of the two-instrument textures, as Morgan, with his resolutely ecstatic singing voice and so-excited-he-can't-sit-still drumming, is palpably and earnestly present in each sound. Indeed, Breathing World comes across as a secular devotional record by someone who worships through the drums. From this perspective, the instrumentation makes perfect sense: Why would you need anything other than a trap kit and a voice to eulogize?
Yet it took Morgan himself—now 30 and recently relocated to Portland from his hometown of Nevada City—decades to become comfortable with the drums-and-voice setup. He wrote and recorded Breathing World on his laptop, mostly with the built-in microphone, over the course of a couple years between stints on the road as drummer and backing vocalist for visionary harpist/singer Joanna Newsom.
Morgan recalls the eventual embrace of his chosen instrumentation. "In early 2007, I was gradually getting rid of other instruments in compositions (finally) and I opened a show for Marnie Stern just singing from the drum kit and that worked. That was the first 'Aha!' moment. Then Joanna opened two shows for Björk and I heard her music for the first time—and with really selective hearing, I heard her songs for the interplay between her voice and the percussion—and that gave me a lot of confidence. Then I sat down to record 'Love Me World' [track three on To the Breathing World] and after a week, realized I could make songs with just my voice and the drum kit. It was the most freeing experience of my life."
Although, to my knowledge, there has never been a record quite like Breathing World, Morgan rightly recognizes his influences. Björk's singular vocals-only album Medúlla echoes in Morgan's work, with its cycling "oo"s, unpredictable harmonies, and intentionally audible inhalations. He couldn't have helped but internalize some of Newsom's Ys-era tendencies, including her penchant for lengthy linear development and preference for refrains over hooks. Ultimately, however, it is another two-instrument album that Breathing World most conjures for me, perhaps more in spirit than form: John Coltrane's free-jazz, drum-and-sax Interstellar Space, a record with which it shares its most central quality—an unmistakable air of discovery and reverence for the expressive power of a pair of lungs and a set of drums.
Neal Morgan celebrates the release of To the Breathing World on Saturday, October 24, at the Artistery (4315 SE Division). Limited-edition, colored-vinyl copies of the album can be ordered through obstructivevibe.com.