If you are a fan of guitar virtuosity, don’t bother reading the rest of this review; just go buy this album. Byrn Paul has put in the hours of practice to become a master of the instrument. There’s nothing left out of Dual Wielder because it was too hard to play. If you’re a fan of math rock and the viola da gamba — and who isn’t? — this is the only album you can buy this year that scratches that itch.
Nothing described above guarantees anything about the quality of the music on Dual Wielder, but Paul has more going for him than the ability to win a shredding competition with the devil. The mixed-meter crunch of the title track is musically fluid with a melancholy, harmonic feel, and the gamba melody sounds like — and not like — a human voice. The combination of programmed electronics and live playing give it a unique either-or flavor; the listener can never be sure how a particular sound was made, or how much digital manipulation was used to create it.
Interleaved between longer tracks are shorter, stinger tracks like “Sparring” which throw out provocative ideas in miniature. The second longer track, “A New Hero,” is less in-your-face than the title track; it has a dazzling mix of live drumming and Aphex Twin-style programmed drill-and-bass percussion. The guitar parts outline what would be a relaxed, cheerful, major-chord jazz song, but the mixed meter and frenetic drums pull it in a different direction.
The second stinger, “Oh So Sweet,” starts with digitally glitched guitars before going into jazzy territory that eschews any repetition. “Dau Ddeg Chwech” (Welsh for “Twenty-Six Six”) recalls what must have been another seminal influence, the prog-rock band Yes. “Elsewhere” foregrounds skillfully programmed string synth sounds blended with real cello and viola da gamba.
It’s hard not to be stunned by what Paul has done on this album, even overwhelmed. Some of the tracks promise something cohesive but then splinter into shards of competing musical ideas. The next-to-last song, “Clear Lake,” sticks to a single sustained mood without sacrificing musical sophistication, and it’s stronger for having fully embodied just one idea.
Dual Wielder is impressive, but what may be most exciting about it is what Paul’s music will become as he gains experience and maturity. If you can do literally anything you can imagine, it can be difficult to choose what to leave out. When Paul finds that balance, his music will be uniquely impressive.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 244.