San Antonio musician John Coker charts a genre-defying path on his new album STOIC

click to enlarge San Antonio musician John Coker charts a genre-defying path on his new album STOIC
Courtesy of John Coker
A freak injury while performing onstage forced classical musician John Coker to reevaluate his life.

During a performance rehearsal at Baltimore’s Peabody Institute, he was exposed to a blindingly bright lighting rig that he says triggered a permanent hyperactive state in his visual cortex. He was temporarily blinded and later diagnosed with PTSD from the incident.

It took years of meditation and therapy for Coker to recover from the PTSD, although he’s still forced to wear dark glasses so his vision can function something close to normal.

“The meditation helped me lose all this fear and this false self that I’d become,” said Coker, who now resides in San Antonio. “It represents being able to be multiple things instead of being stuck in this narrow pigeonhole.”

That eagerness to be multiple things permeates STOIC, the new album Coker recorded during quarantine in his apartment, performing all the instrumental and vocal tracks. The album, Coker’s second long-player as a solo artist, dropped last month on New York-based Bentley Records.

The nine-song release alternates track to track between proggy, improvisation-driven pieces reminiscent of vintage Brian Eno, Tangerine Dream and King Crimson and quiet, more conventionally structured songs that reflect Coker’s simultaneous interest in acoustic singer-songwriters.

The end result is an inventive album unsaddled by genre limitations that manages to explore fresh sonic territory without wallowing in self-indulgence. While there’s plenty of experimentation going on, Coker’s musical chops and embrace of melody never get lost in a sonic mire.

The opening track, “Face the Night Feel Alright,” features electric bass as its most prominent feature — understandable since Coker’s classical training is on the double bass. Stuttering electronic percussion and overdriven guitars do a dance in the headphones before the track settles into a groove somewhere between Tones on Tail and dub reggae.

The 10-minute suite “Eine kleine Not Mozart” provides a showcase for Coker’s classical training, starting with a delicate composition that sounds like it’s being performed on a piano recorded from the other side of an apartment wall. A series of orchestral swells build the piece to a darker, heavier conclusion.

Given the density of Coker’s arrangements, it could be easy for the acoustic songs to feel like filler — something to skip over on the way to the next big payoff — but their immediacy and songcraft allow them to stand on their own.

“Possibly Forever,” which features acoustic guitar accompanied only by tambourine manages to sound like a forgotten songwriting collaboration between the Beatles and the Moody Blues, only with an unexpectedly gothy edge thanks to Coker’s dramatic baritone vocals.

With its lilting folky melody and delicately fingerpicked bridge, “Rose of Another Name” evokes the ’70 British folk-rock scene that gave rise to Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span.

While all that genre jumping could make for an awkward three-bean salad of an album, STOIC hangs together as a cohesive work. Like Jeffrey Lebowski’s rug that pulls the whole room together, Coker’s interest in manipulating sound manages to unite the tracks.

Instruments leap from the mix like jump scares in a horror movie and musical passages pan from one speaker to another and back again, making for a headphone-friendly listening experience.

Those touches no doubt derive from Coker’s experience doing sound design with local stage productions.

“I’m just obsessed with sound,” he said. “It goes back to that thing with John Cage: where’s the line between noise and music?”

While there’s no shortage of solo artists creating experimental releases in their bedrooms that walk a similar line, STOIC stands out from the herd thanks to Coker’s musicianship, ambition and novel approach to contrasting hot and cold, light and dark.

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Sanford Nowlin

Sanford Nowlin is editor-in-chief of the San Antonio Current.

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