Many reviewers waxed poetically on Universalists, we decided to gather some of the most interesting and over-the-top writing on this page. Enjoy.
“What might Jimi Hendrix have sounded like if he had enjoyed access to a library of global sounds that were largely inaccessible back in the day? Quite possibly something like Yonatan Gat. Born in Israel, where he made his name with garage rockers Monotonix and now resident in New York, Gat plays guitar with a thrillingly avant-garde sense of improvisational adventure and a punk-rock aesthetic but imbues the ten tracks on Universalists with so much more. Remarkable.”
- Nigel Williamson, Songlines
"... Comes Yonatan Gat, with a Mission to unite the world in noise. It’s a mind bending result, and while there’s a lot of volume here, there are also sections of quiet sensitivity. If you define the concept of ‘noise’, as out of place, as something intrusive (this is an extension of the anthropologist Mary Douglas’s definition of dirt as matter out of place), you then need to ask what is the ‘in place’ sound that it rubs against. For Gat, one answer lies in questioning relationship to hierarchies. Using field recordings of many different types of music – among them, an Italian choir from the 1950s, a Spanish harvest song, Balinese gamelan – and then splicing them into a mix structured around Gat’s slabs of guitar, a sense of an outside music is created, one that is vitally charged and communally relevant. On ‘Medicine’, probably the most rhythmically frenzied track, Gat is joined by the Eastern Medicine Singers, an Algonquin drum group from Rhode Island: the punk powwow produced is powerful.”
- The New Internationalist
"In the 1940s and beyond, American ethnomusicologist and folklorist Alan Lomax dedicated his life to cataloging unknown singers. His practice became a passion, preserving folk songs of all stripe, sparking entire movements and creating cult stars out of Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, and others. These recordings stretched across the globe and became so diverse the Library of Congress acquired the collection. In 2012, about 17,000 of Lomax’s audio files were were made available digitally, ten years after his death. And while he traveled for decades preserving various cultures’ traditional musics, something unifies these documents. It’s not a sound so much as it is a spirit–Lomax had a way of coaxing the beatific from his subjects, often through the apparent respect he lent to them.
Enter Yonatan Gat, the guitarist who, in the mid-aughts, helped the Israeli agnosto-punks Monotonix become international cult heroes themselves, with his searing and yet effortless fretboard heroics. With Universalists, Gat’s second solo LP, he often starts from Lomax’s library not just for inspiration, but also for actual sounds. A Genoan Trallaero verse, a Mallorcan harvest song, a Piemonten ballad—nothing is off limits when the universe is the limit. Here, Gat bridges the worldliness of Lomax and the incredible energy of his live improvisation, all while completly disregarding the boundaries of space and time in respect to genre. It’s an ambitious, sprawling record, a catalog of fever dreams, where styles and sounds dovetail in transparent sheafs of blotter paper. Which speaks to the quality of Gat’s vision: the verbose have long called music the universal language.
Universalists proves that aphorisms are not just demonstrable, but irrefutable. Spoken language becomes irrelevant; the nuance of Hebrew or Algonquin blends into pure timbre. The album succeeds in fits and starts of warped blues and garage rock, finding spiritual common ground at every turn, dragging the ghosts of Gat’s travels into studios across the country: a few tracks at 25th Street in Oakland with John Schimpf, one with Steve Albini at Electrical Audio in Chicago, a live rework from the defunct DIY Brooklyn performance venue Aviv, a cut made at Dub Narcotic in Olympia, Washington with Calvin Johnson. The centerpiece “Medicine” was tracked at Machines with Magnets in Providence, Rhode Island, a document of a live recording of more than 20 musicians: Gat on cautionary yet explosive guitar, Thor Harris and Sarah Gautier on exploratory marimbas, and Jake Woodruff doing a drone. But it’s the Eastern Medicine Singers, a Native American heritage performance group performing chants and thunderous percussion, that elevate the track to something undeniable. Gat met the group on a chance encounter outside a venue in Austin, Texas.
Elsewhere, “Projections,” recorded at Daptone Studios in Brooklyn, lopes along as strange R&B, a demented jazz-club sax riff interrupted by a literal ghost in the machine. Three female Italian voices are projected through an amp in the middle of the studio, and the band reacts to them live, one of many unorthodox production techniques. On the spiraling “Chronology,” the line between modernity and antiquity collapses into itself, as the entire track stutters into glitched-out pulsations that suddenly morph into orchestra hits. A skipping CD (a sound, it occurs to me, that may never be heard naturally again) becomes an instrument itself.
The dedication to a global perspective here is undeniable, daunting, and hard to quantify. Gat’s live shows—over the last few years and on this record featuring the maniacal Gal Lazer on drums and the sanguine Sergio Sayeg on bass—take improvisation as not only a performance practice, but a lifestyle. Aside from the mountains of samples he sifted through, Gat reportedly sorted through more than 100 hours of recordings of his own band to cull this record. The blistering “Cockfight” verges into full-spectrum jazz-grind, reminiscent of Salt Lake City’s avant-cult recording project, the Ice Burn Double Trio, or, more appropriately, New York psych-kings Oneida. Just as the hint of a voice echoes in, headed toward full-on Lightning Bolt, the track breaks into Balinese gamelan samples. Nothing here is as it seems.
When it comes back to those samples and to Lomax, Gat not only preserves the integrity of the original recordings, he also breathes new life into them, and even carries on the spiritual qualities that make them so singular. There’s almost a time-travel quality to this music that makes it so simultaneously effective and elusive. That’s the beauty of Universalists: there’s no use trying to pin it down. What’s more, doing so discredits its core thesis: music is music, plain and simple. Gat manages to capture the ecstasy of his live performance, while expanding his production and experimental practice to a global, and—dare I say—universal palette. It’s beyond lightning in a bottle; Gat has lightning wrapped around his little finger."
- Dale Elsinger, SPIN
"Banned from performing in his native homeland of Israel for taking his former band Monotonix’s confrontational style of rock’n’roll live and, literally, direct to the audience, Yonatan Gat has channeled the buzz and maelstrom of his entangled guitar work into a productive and creatively eclectic solo career since relocating to New York a number of years ago.
Holding up his guitar like some sort of offering, or a transmitter to the sky, Gat stands as a vessel for a cerebral multilayering of musical influences. Nothing is quite what it seems; ghostly visages of Alan Lomax’s 1950s recording of the Trallalero monosyllabic derived polyphonic style of choral folk song, practiced in the mountain villages and port of Genoa, appear on the opening eloquently shambling (the drums majestically in time rolling down a hill) Cue The Machines, and excerpts from the traditional work songs of Mallorca culture romantically waft over drifting guitar and ambient mirages on Post World. Further on, Gat fuses the Algonquin Eastern Medicine Singers pow wow drum group with his trio’s sinewy trance and scratch work to stomp out a shamanistic post-punk ritual on the Native Indian inspired Medicine.
Gat counterbalances his own group’s mystical maelstroms of pummeling, unblinking rapid rambunctiousness and more dream world jazzy shuffling with passages, memories and textures from socially and geopolitically important traditions. Chronology for example, a peregrination of many segments, features not only a scuzzed-up throw down version of Middle Eastern guitar and a vocal sample (sounding a lot like it was pulled from the ether) of a Spanish harvest song, but also entwines a passage from the famous Czech composer Antonín Dvořak’s String Quartet in F Major: better known as the chamber piece standard, The American Quartet. Written during the composer’s time spent both teaching at the N.Y.C. National Conservatory and living amongst the Czech exiles in the desired haven state of Iowa, this New World Symphony as he called it, is included for its own embrace of Native Indian culture, the Irish immigrants folk songs and the music of the misfortunate African slaves.
Of course you don’t have to pick up on all these deeper references as the music speaks for itself; the ‘universalists’ message of borderless, timeless exploration and shared need for a release from these hostile dangerous times is clear."
- Monolith Cocktail
"Usually when critics fawn over anyone “exploring different styles,” or “experimenting with cultural influences” they mean a pop musician who’s found some old Fela records and a dusty samba whistle. But the guitarist and composer Yonatan Gat explores in earnest: for his second solo effort Universalists he cites influences including Genoan Trallaero singing, Mallorcan work-song, Balinese gamelan music, the Czech composer Dvořák, and IDM.
The album opens with Alan Lomax field recordings (Cue the Machines) and proceeds through pow wow-style polyrhythms, tonal percussion, saxophone licks, sampled and spliced vocal solos and choruses, rich string arrangements, and electronic production tools wielded like in-the-moment instruments rather than final steps. All this sometimes collides like giant machinery in industrial quarries of noise, but often finds and follows crystalline veins of found, rediscovered, and wholly invented melodies. The nuclear forces at the center are, of course, Gat’s guitar, which moves like a mind among the other assembled pieces and players, and the idiosyncratic shuffling space dust drums of Gal Lazer, just as essential a part of Gat’s sound.
Universalists doesn't feel like a sophomore album, perhaps because the guitarist and composer worked through all his growing pains with Israeli punk-pioneers and performance artists Monotonix. It doesn’t really feel like a departure from 2015’s Director either, which isn’t to say Gat is repeating himself: Universalists is an extension and expansion of his solo debut, an evolution as simultaneously radical and just-right as any of the changes he’s known for improvising live.
Listeners who’ve witnessed that improvisation first-hand will find Universalists, despite its heavy production, deeply satisfying. As Gat understands, music – no matter the tradition or instrument – can make concrete resonant, curve streetlamps, pour colour into the sky and suck it away. It's the art form that has the most immediate and sensible effect on the world around the maker and the listener; it is by its nature a shared ritual that transforms and sacralizes the space they share. Yonatan Gat wants his music to share everywhere with everyone – and Universalistsis as close to that as one can imagine coming.”
- Aidan Ryan, The Skinny