Montana Fix is the fourth release by the Chicago-based instrumental outfit Gunnelpumpers and, methinks, a step up on its last, 2012's Tritonium. By comparison, the new set sounds a tad more focused and structured, and, despite being long at eighty minutes, more cohesive, too. It also helps that the band breaks up the recording with some well-timed duo and trio settings, two of them (“Floobah,” “Sparkleboat”) carved wooden flute-double bass duos and two others (“Hip Hip Beret,” “Stwing Feowy”) pieces for three double bassists. The band's improv focus hasn't diminished (all nineteen pieces, most of them live studio recordings, were laid down in a mere two days), nor has its low-end emphasis—a typical track might feature its electric guitarist alongside three percussionists and three bassists—so long-time fans needn't worry: the Gunnelpumpers' identity remains firmly in place.
Montana-born Clevinger (upright electric) bassist Douglas Johnson is the group's de facto leader, though ringmaster might be the better label. He's hardly the sole lead voice, though he does contribute an unhinged, psychedelic solo to the proggy “d'bass'd” that exudes a Hendrixian wildness. If there is a lead voice, it's John Meyer's electric guitar, a raw creature that often slithers snake-like through the band's thick bass-and-percussion brew.
The music often exudes a World Music vibe, in large part due to the instrumentation used (talking drum, melodica, tablas, shakers, rain drum), but it also draws on multiple traditions—improv obviously, but also rock, free jazz, experimental, classical, funk, and prog. An Eastern spirit infuses “Smokeblossom” in particular, especially when tablas, Tibetan singing bowl, and finger cymbals are a major part of the percussive arsenal involved. The classical side comes to the fore in a piece such as “Bassacaglia,” a duet for bowed double bass featuring Johnson and Michael Havnanian, while prog and rock rear their heads in “Puzzle Dust” and “Ouroboros” respectively. “Buffalo Jump” (inspired by Ulm Pishkun, a Montana state park sacred to Native Americans), on the other hand, romps with a primal fury that makes it feel like a centuries-old rain dance. There's a playful side to the band, too, as evidenced most obviously in “Bottley Functions” where all of the sounds are generated by six members playing—what else— beer bottles (even if the result more resembles wooden flutes). It's followed, naturally enough, by “Drunken Alley,” which stumbles woozily along in a way that clearly suggests a night on the town that should have ended earlier.
It's a solid release from start to finish, the only negatives the group's weakness for puns (see “Hip Hip Beret” and “Bottley Functions”) and the album's too-generous length. But as is often the case with eighty-minute releases, the issue is perhaps less about length than format. That is, Montana Fix would be better served by a double-vinyl format featuring four twenty minutes per side rather than as a CD. The track sequencing is generally effective as well, although “Mundus,” with its slow-crawl tempo, makes an already long release feel longer when it appears seventeen tracks in. Double bassist Matthew Golombisky is credited on many songs with likeable noise (whatever that is), but it's a term that could just as easily apply to the band's experimental-yet-accessible sound.