In the world of solo banjo music, well... there's not much of a world of solo banjo improvisations. At least, as far as I can tell. I wish there was, because the few artists I've heard exploring this territory are doing extremely interesting things. Uncle Woody Sullender sounds like some delta blues artist from the '40s, but he's not. On "Nothing is Certain But Death," Sullender's debut, he pushes pushes the limit of what a banjo can do. This is an impressive exploration of sound.
On the opening piece, "Commonwealth Edison," Sullender flexes his muscles. He shows off early, but that's not a bad thing. It's jarring opening and it's sparse, skronking middle work fantastically in unison. This is not your father's bluegrass. Minimal pick work rises and falls in the composition, and his skill is undeniable. Sullender works the banjo like a master pianist strokes the ivories. Some tracks feature the help of other improvisers like cellist Fred Longberg-Holm (on "I am in a Consumption") and vocalist Carol Genetti (on "Doute Tot ou Tard"). As someone who is not a big fan of Longberg-Holm, I am impressed by his contributions here. Quiet screeching accents the plink-plonk of Sullender's banjo at one point, and at another they reach a crescendo simultaneously. This is one of the most melodic passages on the album, and paired with all the energy the two are creating, it's magnificent and dense.
Genetti's contribution, though, is pure fucking gold. When she sings, it's like Sullender is performing an exorcism with his banjo. Her voice takes this record to new heights, and the two play off each other brilliantly. As she wails higher, Sullender takes the queue and moves up the fretboard. The faster the vibrato in her voice, the faster he picks his banjo. This is so good it's scary. I could listen to this all do. It's raw energy at its best.
The one downfall of "Nothing is Certain But Death" are the noise pieces. I appreciate what Sullender is trying to do, and that he's exploring every avenue he can, but I simply don't find them interesting. Without them, this album is a real gem. But unfortunately, the break up the flow the rest of the tracks create. Overall, though, this is a solid debut and one of the most interesting releases I've heard in 2004. Sullender is an impressive musician and an even more impressive improviser. I am curious to see where he goes next. 7/10 -- Brad Rose (25 May, 2005)