Despite being a guitarist myself (and the word on my streets is I’m not actually half bad at it), I’m not the sort who would normally listen to or review an album comprised of rock guitar instrumentals — or at least one on which the guitar is the primary focus. It has to be one enticingly interesting album, otherwise I’m liable to get bored, I must admit. Recently I did write about a couple of axe recordings, by John Ellis and Sean Kelly, because each of those albums offered a platter of interestingly composed and arranged pieces, rather than mere exercises in/demonstrations of technical skill, which is what a lot of guitar albums tend to be.
Matt Stevens is the axeman of modern heavy prog band The Fierce and the Dead, whose star has risen pretty steeply in the last four years or so, due to some innovative marketing and hard work, as well as some great and challenging music, of course. Stevens’ skills are on full display on an album that fortuitously is all about the music, not just his hands going quickly over the six strings. It’s clear from a few places on this album that Stevens can shred with the best of them but chooses not to, instead allowing the melodies and arrangements of his pieces to claim our interest. It works well, because an impressive array of styles is on display here.
Opener “Oxymoron” sounds more like the extended intro of a nineties alt-rock song than a piece of progressive rock, with big power chords and sustained solo lines (which is the first hint of some of the more Fripp-influenced playing to follow).
The second track, “Flow”, contains many of the faintly Asiatic motifs used by Summers and Fripp on their I Advanced Masked album from donkey’s years ago, angular, spiky guitar lines and percussion. “Unsettled” again returns to the sound of more experimental nineties bands like Tool and Primus, with metallic rhythm guitars booming and crashing.
At this point one might start to think that a certain sameyness will start creeping in, but Stevens adeptly heads that off at the pass with a peculiar semi-acoustic piece, “The Other Side”, which also has some banjo-like pipa (the Chinese plucked lute-like instrument) in a sort Twilight Zone version of mountain music!
Things go full-on circa mid-seventies King Crimson with “The Ascent”‘s jagged, dissonant guitar parts; echoes of other avant-garde guitarists like Fred Frith can be heard as well. The overdriven soloing, however, is pure Frippery, which Stevens manages just as well as the man himself, but with some extra shred and whammy action. Pretty tasty, actually.
Stevens isn’t through showing the variety of his tastes, however; “Coulrophobia” is based on reverbed vibraphone, delicate broken chords and other guitar effects used for psychedelic enhancement. An excellent ambient guitar instrumental that’s probably my fave track on the album, but that’s because it more in line with my own personal tastes.
“Lucid” sounds like the vocals have been removed from a Wire song from 1980; very cool and icy post-punk sounds, while “K.E.A.” is another peculiar little acoustic number. The longest, and therefore the “proggiest” of the pieces is “The Bridge”, which at eleven minutes is based on some more atonal, sustained soloing and churning rhythm parts, but there are also some really pretty, textured sections where delay is creatively employed to ambient effect, and even another nice little acoustic piece buried in there which makes effective use of a short delay or tremolo effect. About 5 pieces in one, it’s very impressive.
The album finally concludes with a short, tender and more conventionally melodic (only barely, though — in a jazz sort of way) acoustic piece, “A Boy”.
So you can see there are many different styles of modern guitar toyed with on this record, each one well. The musicians conduct themselves similarly to Stevens, showing their obvious skills but also a lot of restraint in keeping this from turning into a wank-fest. Included in the cast are members of Guapo and the aforementioned Crimson, amongst the other impressive pedigrees on hand.
It’s not often that I can say with certainty that I will return to a guitar instrumental album for repeat listens, but this is just such an album. Stevens is a bright new light on the guitar virtuoso scene, and I look forward to hearing a lot more from him.