[BEATS 'N' AMBIENCE] If you're familiar with Jesse Johnson, the man behind Gulls, it's probably not because of Gulls. The Portland native is better known for playing trumpet with the purely organic yet far from conventional free-jazz combo Evolutionary Jass Band or lending guitar and trumpet to Sam Human's looping, experimental folk-rock project, Modernstate. Johnson also counts avant hip-hop duo Owl Dudes and electronic sound-collage outfit Die Bomb Shelters among his left-field endeavors.
But, as impressive as Johnson is on trumpet—not the easiest instrument for improv—he's been stuck in supporting roles across the board. And an occasional solo does not a star make. Likewise, experimental music doesn't typically make a show of its creator. But, in a relative sense, Gulls' consistently affecting, consistently odd debut, Eats and Opus, shines brightly.
Johnson scrambles any expectations immediately on opener "This Is Clever Freedom," which basks in pseudo-industrial looping (thanks, Modernstate), echo-chamber percussion and ebbing guitar ambience. His trumpet hides through the first half of the song, only to join in later as a melancholic counterpoint to heavy, arrhythmic bass drops. It's almost the same story on the following cut, "BLDNG": Big, crunching, echo-y drums bury everything (including a twinkling xylophone) until the percussion cuts out about four minutes in, leaving Johnson and his trumpet relaying a sorrowful refrain over and over again (I don't think this one's a loop).
Taken as a whole, the album makes it clear that Johnson's far more than a supporting trumpet player (or any other sort of wingman, for that matter). He constructed and recorded Eats and Opus, in fact, from a wide range of largely improvised resources—including guitar, xylophone, bells, programmed and live beats and cityscape field sounds. Vaguely ominous and melancholic throughout, the result is an incredibly interesting eight tracks of glitchy blip-hop married to a lovely composite of ambient sounds. Perhaps most importantly, Eats and Opus showcases just what Johnson's capable of as an instrumentalist—and as a leading man.