By the time Louisville, Kentucky’s Bastro disbanded in the early ’90s, singer/guitarist/pianist David Grubbs (a veteran of that town’s seminal Squirrel Bait) was much less interested in being in a conventional rock band than in creating and manipulating complex tone patterns. (For evidence of the transition, track down Bastro’s side of its 1991 split single with Codeine or its track on the TeenBeat 50 compilation.) The Serpentine Similar EP was recorded with the old lineup (bassist Bundy K. Brown and, making a few cameo appearances, drummer John McEntire) and using an old song (“Sketch for Sleepy,” rewritten as “A Jar of Fat”) — but under a new name, Gastr del Sol. That’s fair, because this was an entirely new thing: rockless, usually percussionless, wildly exploratory and sometimes even successful. Grubbs’ songs-without-tunes approach on “Easy Company” and elsewhere recalls Mayo Thompson (whose Red Krayola he subsequently joined); the instrumentals, though, demand the attention it takes to follow their interbraided melodies.
The subsequent “20 Songs Less” single introduced guitarist, composer and avant-gardist-about-town Jim O’Rourke to the mix, literally-one of his specialties is tape manipulation. Then Brown left, and Gastr del Sol became the catchall name for Grubbs and O’Rourke’s collaborations, though McEntire has continued to assist them.
Crookt, Crackt, or Fly is much more mysterious than The Serpentine Similar — almost all acoustic, drumless, enhanced by subtle tape-work and eschewing traditional tonalities, with a few unexpected leaps into full-bore rock. The focus is more on Grubbs and O’Rourke’s unconventional guitar virtuosity — check out the spectacular “Every Five Miles,” which sounds like John Fahey in hyperspace. Grubbs’ lyrics suggest “language poetry,” though “Thos. Dudley Ah! Old Must Dye” appears to be a setting of an 18th century anagram-poem. Weird stuff, but often very lovely.
The five-track Mirror Repair is in the same vein, almost a distillation of Crookt. Like the album, it has a performance by bass clarinetist Gene Coleman on one piece, very short and very long tracks, surprises in the form of unexpected tape splices on top of a simple ground figure (like the woodwind squall that erupts near the end of “Eight Corners”), peculiar tonalities (the title track) and a few brief, battering passages that remind the listener that, yes, Gastr Del Sol did evolve out of a rock band. The Harp Factory on Lake Street is a single, seventeen-minute piece for a small orchestral ensemble.