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Even the Thorny Acacia , 6/10
Medium Planers and Matchers , 6.5/10
Under the Veil of Health , 7/10 (mini)
Despina By Land , 6.5/10

Spatula belongs to the third generation of Chapel Hill (North Carolina) college-rock. The mind behind Spatula is Chuck Johnson (guitar), who recorded the early singles, Radio Helmet/ Carmike (Now Sound, 1994) and Blue Crab (Now Sound, 1994), and the album Even the Thorny Acacia (Jesus Christ, 1994) with little more than the help of a drummer. The sound is indebted to Steve Albini and Polvo. Schizoid tempos, erudite dissonances, moody passages and cryptic textures pervade Minutehand, Jules and the Termites, True-Life and Confessional Tutor.

The cello plays a key role on Medium Planers and Matchers (Jesus Christ, 1995), by injecting Johnson's convoluted scores with a jazzier and more classical feeling. Zero Trail leads a parade of intellectual exercises that peaks with the suite Dover Downs (nine minutes), his most ambitious work yet. Austere compositions such as The Profundity Requital, Pari Passu and Coupon Waxer quote most alternative rock of the 1980s without ever sounding derivative. A Moog surfaces in Hardwick Range.

Johnson shines on the 26-minute mini-album Under the Veil of Health (Squealer, 1996), crafting instrumental vignettes that are vigorous without being hardcore and that are murky without being obnoxious. The emotional palette ranges from the jovial, deconstructed flamenco of VFW to the whirling middle-eastern dance of Service Entrance Fiasco to the dissonant chamber adagio of King George Island, and sometimes evolves within the same track (the romantic interlude of Empire of the Sun shifts gear to a loud, hallucinated, hypnotic mantra). The shorter tracks all tackle intriguing and seductively surreal techniques, and it is a pity that the artist did not deem them worthy of further development.

Johnson's mostly instrumental art finally came to complete maturation with Despina By Land (Squealer, 1998), recorded by a trio (including Chris Eubanks on cello and bass). Voyage Of The Stan and Sometimes You Die are his most accomplished compositions yet, the former reminiscent of Doors, Mike Oldfield and folk-rock, the latter a sophisticated lesson to purveyors of math-rock drenched in Indian-inspired trance. Johnson can be complex and experimental (Snake Of One Hundred Paces) as well as loud and rocking (Continuous Cities). Clarinet and sarod augment the exotic atmosphere in the carnival music of The Field Broadens. Some of the best ideas are still in the shorter songs, fragments like Strewn And Shoeless (Leo Kottke in a trance) and Pittman's Violets (crystal serene like a renaissance madrigal) that transcend genres and styles. Unfortunately, Johnson is far less engaging when he sings (Lasko).

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