Clubland: Matt Hunter’s ‘New Rotations’

  • “New Rotations”

  • Matt Hunter. Photo by D.W. Hunter

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Matt Hunter was one of the frontmen of New Radiant Storm King, an indie band that burst forth from Hampshire College in 1990 and stayed strong for nearly two decades, using unique guitar tunings and cranked amps to create songs that were like compact hurricane symphonies.

Now Hunter is releasing his own cinematic debut solo album, “New Rotations,” on July 21 on the Darla label.

It opens with an ending of sorts, “Everybody Leaves,” a gorgeous haze of acoustic and electric guitars that mixes melancholy jangle and lush strumming. It’s catchy but with a heavy heart. Goes the chorus: “Everybody needs this town / but everybody leaves.”

“New Rotations” doesn’t try for full-band thunder a la Storm King, but Hunter achieves his own kind of intensity, creating a mood of apocalypse — like a beautiful but ominous sunset, the sense of something changing forever.

“I think an apocalyptic ‘beautiful but ominous sunset’ describes most (but not quite all) of the album about right,” Hunter said in an interview last week from his home in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. “There are moments in life when you are confronted with a task or situation that fills you with dread, yet you find yourself nevertheless utterly compelled by something to continue forward despite it. You’ll never feel more alive; a healthy sense of gallows humor can help keep your courage up. (I thought about calling the album ‘Memento Mori’ for a brief second.) There are a couple of lighthearted songs on the record, though. Just for fun.”

Some of the tracks sound as if they were made to have drum parts kicking them along, like the Velvet Underground-ish chug of “January Sun” (with its memorable line “tomorrow’s banging on the door like it thinks it’s today”) and “Let’s Go,” which achieves Feelies velocity with steady-strummed guitar and a dizzying bass line (the only percussion is a hyper shaker and thudding drum that appear for a mere twenty seconds). Hunter kept things stripped down on purpose.

“The initial idea was to have no drums at all, as I was curious to see if I could get the propulsion of rock without using the very instrument that usually provides it,” he said. “Some of this was admittedly out of necessity, since this was mostly recorded in the tiny apartment I share with my wife.”

There’s fresh air in Hunter’s varied arrangements. “TFW (You Have That Feeling)” is a swirling song with sawing violin, a waltzing bass part and a chiming Turkish instrument called a saz, which Hunter bought last year during a visit to Istanbul. 

The dreamy and churning instrumental opening section of “Bog Boy” is maybe the record’s most Storm King-esque moment; Jennifer Coates’ haunting violin pops up during its reprise like a mirage swimming on the desert horizon. 

“Take a Light” sounds a little like “‘Theme from Shaft’ meets The Smiths.” An insistent hi-hat keeps tense time, like a fuse threatening to run out. There’s that apocalypse again, which flowers fully on the closing track, “The Road.” Its dusky, mesmerizing mood is interrupted by the saz vibrating like a clanging alarm, and the song rides out on a repeating, portentous chord change, as if the world around has already begun to shift into something else.

“Sutton Hoo” is one of the album highlights. Having no idea what the title meant, I researched and learned it’s a British site of 7th century cemeteries, including a ship burial. One of the song’s verses: “There is a storm, horizon-wide, kicking up sand, getting in your eyes / this is a story coming to you live / and with an ending about to arrive.”

Hunter said the song’s title has nothing directly to do with its theme, “but I am a history obsessive in general, and with Roman and post-Roman Britain specifically. Still not 100% sure what that song is about…something about how one faces terrors that appear unimaginably large, whether real or imagined. Mash that theme and title together and you could wind up somewhere interesting.”

The emotional steel guitar on “Sutton Hoo” is played by Matt Sutton (one half of the magical Brooklyn duo The Malarkies) and one of the most beautiful musical moments on the record. In addition to Sutton and Coates, Hunter was joined by guests Jim Santo on baritone guitar, Joe McGinty on piano and Roger Murdock on drums. Hunter played everything else (and is responsible for “singing,” as he puts it in the liner notes).

“I never really wanted to do a ‘solo’ album, and I’m still a little uncomfortable with the idea, as I have a lingering notion that bands make better music than individuals,” Hunter said, adding that “New Rotations” grew naturally out of songs he was idly writing and recording at home when musical projects with other folks were petering out. 

“After a while it seemed like it was turning into something, so I just followed it where it seemed to want to go. I called it ‘Matt Hunter’ rather than adopting a nom-du-rock on the recommendation of my label owner, who correctly pointed out that I’ll probably always be known as Matt Hunter.”

For more information about “New Rotations,” visit darla.com or matthunterdarla.bandcamp.com.