Baltimore’s Ponytail made it onto a lot of critics’ year-end lists before calling it quits last August. The spazzy quartet played the biggest summer festivals and won the hearts of brightly colored art-school kids at home and abroad over the course of its too-short existence. Naturally, upon the band’s demise, ultra-inventive guitarist Dustin Wong set out to craft a solo record—-but don’t get bored yet, it’s not what you think. There are no ballads or weepy acoustic guitars. It’s actually an extension of the sweet, prog-flavored material he brought to Ponytail, and it’s entirely instrumental.
At its best moments, Infinite Love soars like few albums. Without the weight of drums, bass, vocals, or even standard song structures in the traditional sense, Wong’s guitar loops stack like a musical game of Jenga until they topple over, spilling out ear candy for guitar nerds and more casual sonic adventurers alike. The high points reach for the same hopeful catharsis you might find on an Explosions in the Sky album, though they arrive with less dramatic swoops and more hyperactive histrionics. The most obvious musical parallels are Wong’s previous projects, particularly Ecstatic Sunshine, but his style also hearkens back to the more playful work of Ian Williams before he left Don Caballero. Wong crafts a set of precise, mathy licks that warmly weave in and out of each other, and by adding no small amount of delay, makes his single instrument sound massive. When he reaches the fullest, richest set of polyrhythms he can piece together, the song peaks and he moves onto something new.
The trouble with this record is not a lack of brilliant climaxes, though; it’s a lack of restraint. Infinite Love will be released physically as a double LP, and the digital version contains two nearly identical records (a brother and sister side). Each begins and ends the same way, but they take different twists and turns in the middle—-neither have any individual track titles. In theory, this allows the listener the option of choosing which version of the record they prefer. It’s an interesting attempt at playing with the idea of an album, but with 80 minutes of pure guitar looping and delay pedal tricks (with only very occasional drum machines), it easily becomes tedious.
There are mountains of unique ideas on this record, and the best ones are really exceptional, but given that the self-imposed limitations on the album already create a certain amount of repetition, having tracks from the first disc actually repeat on the second disc seems remarkably unnecessary. Of course, an experimental, instrumental solo album is naturally going to come with a fair amount of concept-heavy self-indulgence. If you can make it past that, there are plenty of highlights. When Wong is nailing it, he does so epiphanically—-it’s like the otherworldly, intellectual feel of a Terry Riley composition that slowly rises up and takes you somewhere strange and exciting. Not too many folks reach those heights, and if getting there requires sitting through a few sections that feel a little too infinite, it just might be worth it.
Infinite Love is out today on Thrill Jockey.