WillARD gRANT CoNsPiRACY Untethered
The late Robert Fisher offers a downbeat but defiant swansong. By Allan Jones
Willard Grant Conspiracy’s music has always seemed to come from a place of permanent eclipse, an unlit world. it’s barely a surprise, then, that Untethered is so steeped in shadow, a sense of approaching doom, dim forebodings, that kind of thing. This has been the prevailing mood of their albums since 1997’s debut, 3am At Freedom Otto’s, and landmark follow-ups like 2003’s exquisitely mournful Regard The End. What makes listening to Untethered more than ever like watching the last sunset, however, is the knowledge that these are the final tracks robert Fisher recorded. He died of cancer in January 2017.
Fisher formed Willard Grant in Boston in 1995 and for the next 20 years was the only permanent member of a mutating collective of musicians. Principal among them was multi-instrumentalist david Michael Curry, who joined for second album, Mojave, in 1999. Curry’s viola became as much a signature sound of WGC’s subsequent albums as Fisher’s sonorous vocals, Curry becoming over the years Fisher’s closest musical collaborator; Warren Ellis, if you like, to Fisher’s Nick Cave. From the start, Fisher’s songs were consumed by sin, retribution, shame, guilt, despair, loss of faith, redemption through love. On their most resplendent albums, Regard The End, Let It Roll and Pilgrim Road, particularly, Fisher and Curry fashioned out of these raw emotions mini-symphonies, replete with strings, gorgeous brass arrangements, clarion guitars; a soaring sound, yet always bound to an unfathomable sorrow, an ecstatic melancholy.
after touring Pilgrim Road as a 12-piece, WGC scaled back. Old songs were reworked on 2009’s Paper Covers Stone by a much-reduced lineup. Their last album, 2013’s Ghost Republic, featured only Fisher and Curry. The duo continued to tour, sometimes with additional musicians. in early 2016, they played the incubate Festival, in the Netherlands. On his return to California, Fisher was diagnosed with terminal cancer. With the faithful Curry and a small group, Fisher spent what time he had left recording the tracks that Curry has assembled as Untethered. according to Curry, the title track was the only postdiagnosis song Fisher wrote. Everything about the album, though, has as a sense of requiem and adieu.
it opens with the elemental commotion of “Hideous Beast”, roughly the equivalent of being hit in the face by a swinging door. it’s impossible to hear it as anything less than the howl of someone whose life’s just been stamped with a sell-by date. Fisher sounds like something with hooves, trapped in a burning barn. The track crackles around him, something short-circuiting, systems breaking down amid crashing drums, pulverising bass and gnawing, unhinged guitars; a gruesome, hysterical noise. Things calm down after this. “do No Harm” is a song about regret and capitulation, warmly wrapped in acoustic guitars, cello and Curry’s ubiquitous viola, with Steve Wynn, on secondment from dream Syndicate, supplying rupturing shards of electric guitar. Fisher’s imposing voice has down the years variously been compared to Cohen, Cash, Cale, Nick Cave, those gloomy vocal pallbearers. On “26 Turns” and tracks like “Chasing rabbits”, “love You apart” and “Saturday With Jane”, however, he more often recalls lambchop’s Kurt Wagner. His voice in other words inclined to a kind of mumbling rapture, a bedazzled murmur.
“let The Storm Be Your Pilot” is more obviously troubled, Fisher’s voice reduced to multi-tracked whispers, the music a breaking squall. The instrumental “all We Have left” is similarly disquieting. acoustic guitar, cello and viola drones create a close, muggy atmosphere, distantly reminiscent of Van Morrison’s “TB Sheets”, a sick-room ambience that makes you want to fling open windows, let some air in. “i Could Not” is similarly bereft, a song of sombre disappointment. “I thought I could understand the words in the book of love,” Fisher sings. “I thought I could sing a song for every man... I could not,” he concludes, unhappily, disappearing into an engulfing noise. The title track, meanwhile, starkly anticipates personal apocalypse. “Last night, I dreamed I was blown-up and busted,” Fisher sings, stunned by circumstance. “Time moves slowly, then it’s over, the shadows fall and box us in,” he reflects, fatalistically.
The album closes with “Trail’s End”, which makes you think of singing cowboys, something maybe involving yodelling. it starts like an appalachian lament, played under lowering skies, before becoming a clamorous, angry racket, a defiant adios from a sometimes underappreciated but often extraordinary talent.
(l-r) Robert Fisher and David Michael Curry of willard grant Conspiracy