Recording information: Black Dirt Studio, NY; Phoenix Studio, Cumbira, GB; The Band on the Wall, Greater Manchester, GB.
Michael Chapman is often cited as one of the unsung heroes of the British folk music community, but that tends to shortchange the eclecticism of his approach. While the melodic sense of British folk plays a large part in Chapman's music, one can also hear much of the "American Primitive" sound pioneered by John Fahey, and like Fahey in his later years, Chapman has a strong taste for experimental sounds, and all of these elements make themselves heard on The Polar Bear, the third in a series of free-form releases Chapman has recorded for Blast First Petite. The Polar Bear ranges from the delicate and quite lovely acoustic guitar and cello piece "Flowers in the Oven," the easy interplay of the full-band number "Black Dirt on a Hot Day," and the acoustic vs. electric face-off of "Razorback Hat" to the reverb-streaked soundscapes of the title track and a lengthy jam with Thurston Moore, full of several varieties of skronk, titled "Six, Two, Thirteen." In the manner of Fahey, Chapman's technique here is quite solid, but he never lets it get in the way of his muse, aiming for a mood rather than a flashy performance, and his embrace of unbridled electric noise on his 14-minute blowing session with Moore is strong and passionate enough to convince anyone that this is not just any veteran folkie. The sheer range of The Polar Bear might make it confounding for some listeners -- those who enjoy the electric hailstorm of "Six, Two, Thirteen" might not have a taste for the more subdued pleasures of "Flowers in the Oven," and vice versa. But if you love not just the guitar but the endless possibilities the instrument presents, you probably share at least a bit of Chapman's world-view, and The Polar Bear is an often fascinating exploration of the many paths his imagination can take him. ~ Mark Deming