“The Following Mountain” captures Sam Amidon at a rare and interesting moment in his musical journey, in a place that lives somewhere between his past musings on traditional Appalachian folk songs and his fascination with free-form jazz and experimental, improvised sessions. In his first recording of almost entirely original songs, the singer alternates between glimpses of his yearning, magical arrangements of lesser-known folk songs and the fractured jazz that he played with on “Lily-O,” his album with electronic jazz artist Bill Frisell.
The best thing that can be said about “The Following Mountain” is that there’s never a dull moment. The worst thing is that sometimes the songs seem to emerge half-formed, raw in all their honesty and confusion. The fractured songs make sense considering that much of the album came out of several improvisational sessions that Amidon set up with an eclectic group of musicians, including Shahzad Ismaily, saxophonist Sam Gendel (also known as Inga), and the renowned free jazz drummer Milford Graves.
Arguably the most reminiscent of Amidon’s earlier work is the song “Juma Mountain,” with its ecstatic percussion and circulating guitar line pushing along a song that perfectly balances rhythm and melody. The track organically sprouts in swathes of timbres as Amidon sings in the aching voice, varnished with sunset colors, his fans have come to love, obliquely referencing events spent on an ambiguous mountain in the autumn months:
“In the mountain, the colored leaves are falling
Shots were fired from the darkest moments
Like a child speaking to a stranger
What a voice what a voice what a voice what a voice what a voice
If I had wings if I had wings”
If the lyrics seem delightfully vague, then you’re in for enjoyable journey into the multi-faceted creative mind of Sam Amidon. Just when we think we have him figured out, the musician side steps it all with an out-of-place electronic beat on “Another One Gone” or a 12-minute quest into fractured jazz sounds on “April (feat. Milford Graves).” Although Amidon’s bravery is admirable, the execution sometimes falls flat, a few songs left with the feeling that they would have benefited from a bit more tweaking and care.
Still, though, “The Following Mountain” is fun and challenging in a way that only Amidon could execute. You can feel his exploratory spirit on tracks such as “Trouble in Mind,” where a thick beat rambles on behind guitar licks that combine pastoral and contemplative elements. Violin and electronic noises only serve to accentuate the listener’s wild journey into a world of trouble, one that bubbles with the potential energy of change and acceptance.
This spirit of metamorphosis is the raw beauty of Amidon’s new album, exhibited in his imagery and ideas of a mountain that follows you, so you can climb up it whenever you’d like. Does the mountain represent the struggles of a life between tradition and the future? This seems to be so when we hear the electronically distorted cry of Amidon on “Warren” among lyrics pulled from the 17th century poem “Sleep Downy Sleep.” It’s as if the existential dread of the current times has finally caught up with him, filtering his cry through the alienation and jaggedness of the technological age.
By “April” we have almost completed the album’s journey with Amidon. By the end of the song, we aren’t any more sure where we have traveled to, or why. Although the improvised instrumental clocks in at nearly 12 minutes, and will surely leave some Amidon fans confused and grasping for solid ground, the journey still seems a worthy one from an artist that knows how collage the past and future into a fresh and intoxicating kaleidoscope of sounds.