“Visions of space and atmosphere – the absence of busy, human life – populate a lot of what I do. It’s regenerative, an existential thing.”
Nearly 30 years have passed since New Zealand guitarist-composer Roy Montgomery eased out of the country’s fertile post-punk scene to commence issuing solo records on labels including Kranky, VHF, and Drunken Fish. As a driving force in way, way underground guitar bands including the Pin Group, Dadamah, Hash Jar Tempo, Dissolve, and Torlesse Super Group, Montgomery has left a profound mark on the region’s instrumental music, even if his work hasn’t (yet) connected with a larger audience. One reason? The artist has never gunned to be a master instrumentalist the way that John Fahey or Sandy Bull did.
Montgomery, in fact, long ago discarded the notion that he’d be a fingerpicker or guitar slinger, telling the Guardian last year he realized early on that he “wasn’t wired to be a virtuoso, so I should concentrate on ideas an experimentation” That Guardian interview came about because Dry Cleaning, the ascendent British post-punk band, invited Montgomery to open part of its 2022 New Zealand tour.
Montgomery has also performed and recorded with sound artist Liz Harris, a.k.a. Grouper. Montgomery’s work, she said, evokes “a familiar landscape … It describes a place I have already somehow been.”
Here’s Grouper and Montgomery performing Sandy Bull’s brilliant extended meditation, “Fantasia on a Theme.” Sit back, because it’s 18 minutes of bliss.
Those interested in doing a deep dive on Montgomery’s work should start at the beginning. Scenes from South Island came out in the mid-1990s. Grouper reissued the record in 2019.
Of Scenes from South Island, Montgomery told the Guardian: “I’ve never tired of the imagery that generated the album, and those landscapes are still places I go to, physically or in my mind. Those visions of space and atmosphere – the absence of busy, human life – populate a lot of what I do. It’s regenerative, an existential thing.”
Montgomery often taps guitar effects that echo and linger, like the Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie minus the distortion and chaos. But Montgomery, too, can lean into noise when he so desires. In 2016, he released a feast of noisy, Sonic Youth-ish mostly instrumental records under the title R M H Q – Headquarters. Four full albums, the batch came out following the devastating earthquakes that leveled parts of Christchurch, New Zealand in 2011.
As outlined in release notes on Bandcamp, the quake “condemned Montgomery’s entire neighborhood save for his home, stripping his street of a community; and, as a volunteer firefighter, he saw first-hand the destruction and loss of life in the city center. Additionally, since 2014, illness in the family has dominated his life. Self-expression once again demanded an outlet.”
The result: “Four albums conceived and recorded over a very short period, each of them carrying a distinct focus and mood.”
Though he occasionally sings, Montgomery prefers not to. For his exquisite 2018 album Suffuse, he invited six guest vocalists to contribute. The result is a meditative album featuring Grouper, Julianna Barwick, She Keeps Bees, and others that suggests shoegaze and Eno in equal measure.