When I heard that Baltimore quartet Ponytail grew out of an assignment in a college art class, I expected them to sound heavily conceptual and musically primitive-- more interested in ideas than technique. It turned out they did have an abstract side, especially in the word-less vocals of Molly Siegel, but they were also seriously proficient musicians. Drummer Jeremy Hyman whipped up a tornado of rhythms-- he's now a go-to percussionist for the Boredoms-- and intercutting guitarists Ken Seeno and Dustin Wong were fast, complex, and precise. The brilliance of Ponytail was that all these chops served engaging music. You could dig the craft without focusing on it-- often at their shows I'd get so caught up in all the ecstatic momentum that the wizardry didn't hit me until afterwards.
Ponytail went on hiatus in August, and Wong is the first member to release a solo record. Though his guitar prowess is more obvious on Infinite Love, he continues to use it primarily for emotional impact. A 40-minute piece cut into 15 tracks (and then re-done on a 2nd CD-- more on that later), the album was made with electric guitar, effects pedals, and a few cameos by a drum machine. Many of its passages begin like compulsory exercises, the instrumental equivalent of connecting dots, tracing lines, or winding up a toy and watching it scuttle across the floor. But they become hypnotic melodies quickly. Pin-pricks congeal into chords, loops swing into low-end waves, and strums spawn glistening notes like a sparkler emitting embers.
Not every Ponytail fan will be thrilled with Infinite Love-- even at its most engaging, it feels like an experiment. Wong encourages this a bit in his presentation-- the two CDs here are "brother" and "sister" versions which open and end the same but vary in their middles, and both include a DVD of accompanying visuals. Clearly this is not an album of songs, and its appeal will be quicker for those inclined to solo guitar explorations, or for whom repetition and layering are a form of verse-chorus-verse. But for formal-sounding guitar art, Infinite Love is sneakily memorable. At various points I hear echoes of Ian Williams' playing in Don Caballero, Steve Reich's phasing repetitions, the softer clouds of Mark McGuire, and hints of metal and prog-rock. Most moving is a passage of lonely balladry that sounds like Wong covering Loren Connors.
As diverse as all those sounds are, it would be fun to hear Wong throw off the conceptual chains and follow this album with looser, more unpredictable sonics-- much the way his other group, Ecstatic Sunshine, often does. Given the history he's forged with them and Ponytail, Wong likely won't sit still for long, and even the most rigid parts of Infinite Love suggest he's got a lot more ideas to draw on.