Yonatan Gat is a genre all to his own. His new opus, Universalists (out May 4th on Joyful Noise in US and Glitterbeat in Europe) sees the New York experimental composer honing his skills not only as guitarist and bandleader, but also as a producer. His sophomore LP sees Gat experimenting with splicing live-to-tape recordings of his genre-bending trio in ways that are as indebted to Kanye West as they are to electric era Miles Davis or Brazilian experimentalists Os Mutantes (with which Yonatan recently released a split 7-inch), pushing the envelope in ways that he can.
Album opener “Cue The Machines” starts with an Italo-Spanish choir – but the voices get manipulated, sampled and chopped into stuttering electronic rhythms underneath Gal Lazer’s merciless jazz-punk drums and Sergio Sayeg’s countermelodic bass. The second track, “Post-World”, uses Gat’s guitar to reframe a traditional work song from Mallorca into a mysterious, yearning ballad. Lead single “Cockfight” pays homage to Balinese music, and album centerpiece “Medicine” combines Gat’s sound with the Eastern Medicine Singers, a group of Algonquin Native American drummers. Along with Swans’ Thor Harris they create a pulsating, stream-of-consciousness trance.
Universalists lists numerous collaborators, the most intriguing being Silver Jews frontman David Berman credited as album co-producer, particularly since Berman has released little to no new music in the last ten years. Other contributions come from producers such as Calvin Johnson (Beat Happening), Daniel Schlett (Ghostface Killah), and others frequent collaborators from throughout Yonatan’s storied career.
Over the previous decade, Gat became known as one of the world’s top performers as founder and guitarist of Monotonix, hailed by SPIN as “the most exciting live band in rock’n’roll,” with concerts that quite literally destroyed the border between performer and audience, and were controversial enough to get them banned from playing their home country.
Gat then relocated to New York City. He began recording and performing as a bandleader, and in 2014 released the Iberian Passage EP, a debut that maintained his signature raw energy while switching the focus away from the shock-performance style of Monotonix to a more ritualistic, improvised, shamanic musical exploration. 2015 brought the genre-bending full-length Director. Composed mostly of live improvisations by his trio and field recordings made by Gat, the record was a mind-melting exploration through many different styles of music, from Brazilian psych and Afrobeat to free jazz, surf, and 20th century avant-garde.
Three years in the making, Universalists is a conceptual and crafted snapshot of an artist evolving and experimenting, broadening his musical palette to incorporate vocals, vibraphones, horns, strings and samples, all the while remaining loyal to his live ferocity. Every recording of Gat’s band in Universalists was performed (many completely improvised) live, each in a different studio, before they were meticulously edited, rearranged, reframed and reinvented by Gat.
A truly global work set to be released in the hostile political climate of 2018, the album is inevitably charged with a sense of confrontational urgency. But while it is indeed a provocative work, it goes beyond exploring the distress of our time. Universalists goes on to emphasize not the distinction between genres, and by extension cultures, but the complex similarities.