Matt Stevens - ‘Ghost’ (2010)
self released, digital download, £ name your price
This is an instrumental album of acoustic guitar music. Which could mean any of a number of things: it’s not Rodrigo y Gabriela; neither is it Egberto Gismonti; and no, it’s not Eric Roche either. It’s Matt Stevens. I’ve heard it described as acoustic prog, but that doesn’t really help me tell you what it sounds like.
Equal parts unassuming, melody focussed composition and studio cleverness, this is music that manages to be highly individual and distinctive without being obviously transgressive or generically unstable. It’s easy to listen to, but a very long way from easy listening. I like the way it refuses to push its inventiveness at you, but sits there, waiting for your close attention, and ready to reward you if you give it.
‘Ghost’ is not a virtuoso guitar record, which is a good thing in my book. Not that I object to virtuoso performances, but it’s easy for guitarists who are merely extremely good players to fall into the trap of thinking we’d like to listen to their technique for an hour or so. Matt Stevens is clearly a player, but there are no parts on here that couldn’t be executed by any reasonably well versed guitarist.
What this is about, to my ear, is texture. I mean, clearly a great deal of thought has gone into the rhythmic and melodic elements of these compositions, but their short phrase cyclicity turns melodic fragments into textural musemes, either to be layered and accumulated for dynamic intensity, or to be isolated and exposed for narrative impetus.
Of course there is long phrase melodicism as well (or ‘solos’, as I would call it if I was in a less obscure mood), which is where Stevens’ very creative and intelligent ear for improvisation is showcased. Well, to be honest, I have no idea whether they’re improvisations or not, but they sound like they are, which, in my book, is a Good Thing.
What strikes me most forcefully there is the distinctive approach to ‘out’ playing. Playing ‘out’ is where an improviser plays notes that don’t necessarily relate closely to the harmony: they’re not ‘right’ notes. Where this is usually done is either in certain minor key harmonies, which are already unstable, and can absorb a good deal of chromaticism, or in a tightly sequenced series of repeated motifs, where the strong melodic shape, established with ‘right’ notes, makes the ear happily accept the ‘out’ notes. Another approach is to simply diverge from the harmony and go off on your own path, effectively establishing an alternative key centre, a polytonality.
Perhaps because it only happens when he is playing long phrase, non-repetitive melody, Matt Stevens’ outside playing seems to take the form of an episodic polytonality, pulling away from the harmony, and building tension like a rubber band, but releasing it quite quickly, before the listener has any chance to get lost. I don’t think I know of any other soloist, in rock or jazz, who does quite the same thing: it’s a very distinctive, rather unsettling, and highly musical effect.
If I have a criticism of this album, it is that the mood is very similar across all of the tracks. There’s a good deal of variety in texture, in the musical materials that are used, and in the use to which they are put: it’s far from ‘samey’ in that sense. But emotionally, each tune seems to be in a similar place, and as a consequence, although there is a continuous impression of musical impetus, the album does not have much overall sense of journey or narrative.
There’s a lot I could tell you about this recording. The way each tune seems to describe a place or an experience, with all the atmosphere and specificity of memory. The clever sonic manipulations. The way dynamics are handled with a beautifully controlled modulation of instrumental density, rather than volume. The very subtle, but deeply involving sense of forward motion that obtains even when the music seems to be at a standstill, with melodic fragments just hanging in the ether.
But the main thing I need to tell you is that this is heartfelt, moving music, that is not trying to be clever, but simply trying to communicate. I’ve listened to this a hell of a lot, and I’m still finding new things in it. Matt Stevens is a rare compositional talent and I’m looking forward to his next release with bated breath.
Hobopope and the Goldfish Cathedral - ‘Dusty Curtain Face’ (2007)
self released, CD, £1
I’ll start this review with an apology: I’m going to mention Cardiacs a lot. I’m sure there are a lot of deeply obscure bands out there that could also bear a comparison with Hobopope and the Goldfish Cathedral (hereinafter to be referred to as the party of the first part, or maybe HATGC), but I don’t know about them, more’s the pity.
I say ‘more’s the pity’ because I like this sort of thing. You may be wondering what ‘this sort of thing’ entails, and the answer is simple: pronk.
This is a genre label, a contraction of ‘progressive punk’, which refers to a fusion of punk aesthetics and instrumental texture, with a progressive and sophisticated approach to the selection and use of musical materials. It is a term most frequently applied in relation to Cardiacs (although chief Cardiac Tim Smith prefers to refer to his music as ‘pop’; if we take genre labels as a convenient shorthand used to give music lovers a general idea of what a band might sound like, then I can’t begin to describe how utterly ludicrous that is!)
So pronk is a good starting place for HATGC, as is saying that it sounds a bit like Cardiacs: when I first heard them play (or him, as the multi-talented Paul Rhodes was making do with just a backing tape for a band), I thought ‘that sounds like Cardiacs’. Which is the only time I’ve heard any band other than Cardiacs and thought that. I’m going to leave Cardiacs alone now, because they are indeed an obvious influence, and Rhodes is a big fan, but he also has a musical brain of his very own, and it is an imaginative and creative one. His music is anything but derivative, and it has lot of unique features what he made up without copying a famous band.
One of the first things you might find is that a lot of the melodies don’t sound normal. That’s because they’re not. Normal melodies are based on one of a handful of musical scales: a lot of the melodies on this album sound to me as though they’re based on the whole tone scale, which is not one of those handful of scales. It is a symmetrical scale, which means that any one of its notes can equally well serve as the root note of any given phrase, leading to a sense of ambiguity and, well, rootlessness. This puts a slant on the music from the word go: it gives it a weird mood, as though you had unwittingly crossed into a parallel, similar, but subtly different universe.
Another thing that’s odd is the phrasing. Chords (and melodies) tend to be sequenced in long, meandering chains, that don’t come to a logical conclusion like a harmonic rhythm normally does, and that don’t cycle round in nice predictable little sub-phrases so that we’ll find it easy to sing along. Rhodes, sadly for those who want a sing along, and happily for me and other weirdos of a similar disposition, is not about to switch off his imagination in order to make things easier for us to digest.
Rhythmically the music usually sounds straightforward, at a basic level, but over the ground beat are layered all kinds of displacements, odd numbered groupings and abrupt gear changes in and out of half time, which has an effect on the listener nearly as unsettling as the unconventional melodic resources.
All of this is very clever, but it’s not about being clever: it’s about making sounds that are challenging, that demand your attention, and do not just remind you of something else you’ve heard. Most of the instrumental textures will be familiar from the heavier end of the rock spectrum, but that’s like saying the instruments used in the Rite Of Spring are the same as some of the ones in the Marriage Of Figaro: it doesn’t give you much warning!
Personally I find this music deeply satisfying to listen to: it is stimulating, intriguing, intelligent and passionate in a way that doesn’t jump about and draw attention to itself, but almost hides behind its ostensible weirdness. And it doesn’t entirely eschew the cheap tricks of less uncompromisingly creative music: I’ve just been having a very nice metal-head type time listening to the bizarre acid-thrash mayhem of B.I.A.B.W.A.B.I., the album’s final track.
There is singing. It’s kind of submerged in the mix, and I generally pay as much attention to the lyrics as I think the artist wants me to: in other words, if there are lyrics on the CD insert, or in an obvious place on the website, I’ll pay close attention to what the songs are ‘about’, but if they’re hard to hear and not reproduced, I’ll assume that they’re not crucial to an understanding of the music. It’s pretty clear these are not ‘ooh baby I love you’ songs or ‘feel the rhythm’ dancefloor anthems, but beyond that, I wouldn’t like to say. If that means I’ve totally missed the entire point of the album so be it.
In conclusion, this is not for the faint-hearted, or the closed-minded. This is for the open-eared listener with a willingness to embrace new sounds, and to be taken on a journey without continually clutching at generic reference points. It is some of the most creative and technically accomplished music I’ve come across recently, and also some of the most intelligent.