Going Sølo : Nicklas Sørensen Talks Influences, Scat, and His New Solo LP

If you’re familiar with the Danish rockers Papir, then you’re quite familiar with Nicklas Sørensen. Sørensen is the guitarist for the three-piece psych rock outfit out of Copenhagen. His style is fluid, groove-filled and nuanced. He can go from heady post-rock passages that float on crystalline clouds to buzzing, fuzzed-out freak outs at the drop of a guitar pick. There’s a real intellectual quality to his style that is missing from so many modern players. Back in early 2016 Nicklas released his first solo LP titled Solo. Using his Papir bandmates as a rhythm section, the album was a tour de force of Michael Rother vibes and motorik beats that sounded like early Satriani and Dixie Dregs records, had they been influenced by NEU! ’75. In relation to other instrumental guitar album fare, Solo stood out as something completely new.

Nicklas Sørensen wasted no time recording album number two. Solo 2 was recorded with Jonas Munk at his Odense studio and this time around Sørensen kept the process to just himself and Munk. With Munk’s deft synth touches and some classic electronic drum machines, Nicklas built an even more unique listening experience. The results are stunning.

I recently spoke with Nicklas Sørensen about the album, the writing process, his influences, and how Eurodance led to A Tribe Called Quest, which led to “Smoke On The Water”.


J. Hubner: So where did you grow up? 

Nicklas Sørensen: I grew up in Bagsværd which is a small town in the suburbs close to Copenhagen.

J. Hubner: What age did you get into music as a fan? Did you have someone that was your musical mentor?

Nicklas Sørensen: I don’t remember what age exactly, but I think I was fascinated by music and instruments from a very early age. I remember collecting these Mr. Music-tapes containing a mixture of all these European hits from the 90’s; Scatman John and Whigfield just to name a few. I was around eight or nine then. A pedagogue was kind of a mentor for me. I was often bored and not really good a playing with the other kids, who wanted to play computer all the time, which I hated. But he made this mixtape for various hip hop groups for me, and I was listening to it all the time. Can’t recall what was on it though, probably A Tribe Called Quest, Cypress Hill – stuff like that. So hip hop and Eurodance was my first love so to speak. Rock’n’roll probably came from my father who played “Smoke on the Water” on vinyl for me, that’s the first rock’n’roll song I remember.

J. Hubner: Who were some of the first artists you fell for? Do you remember the first album you bought?

Nicklas Sørensen: Scatman John and Whigfield. I got my first stereo for my ten years birthday, and I wanted to buy Scatman John’s debut album, but for some reason I bougth a compilation called Dance Mix instead. That was my first CD.

photo by Jimmi Brandt

J. Hubner: When did you start to play music? Was guitar your first instrument?

Nicklas Sørensen: I started going in this youth club after school and formed my first band with some boys and girls from my class. I played drums. The pedagogues in the club encouraged and motivated us to play and make music. My father wouldn’t let me have a drum set though, so he gave me a guitar for Christmas instead. I played it every day and started hanging out with some guys from my school who played in another band, and soon I was good enough to join that band. We played Creedence and The Beatles and Guns’N’ Roses too. I also started taking lessons in classical guitar at the same time as I started playing in a band. There was actually a period where I thought classical guitar was going to be my life.

J. Hubner: When you started learning guitar, who were some of your musical heroes? Which guitarists blew your mind?

Nicklas Sørensen: I don’t recall I had any guitar heroes, but I started taking a few lessons in blues guitar also with this guy who was obsessed with Eric Clapton. So he got me through a lot of Eric Clapton licks and solos. What first blew my mind was probably a Danish band called Dizzy Mizz Lizzy, and the Danish guitarist Tim Christensen, who could play both heavy melodic riffs and majestic solos – I was really into that in my early teenage years.

J. Hubner: You’ve been putting out albums with Papir for quite a few years now. In early 2016 you released your first solo LP, titled Solo. When you decided you wanted to put out something on your own, what was the idea behind that first solo record? What, on your own, did you want to create that you couldn’t in a band?

Nicklas Sørensen: I used to see myself mainly as a “band person”. I have always been in bands and thought that was my channel for expressing my musical identity – so I guess it wasn’t really obvious for me why I should do a solo record in the first place. I remember Jonas and Jakob said something like “maybe you should do a solo record…?” or “you should really consider doing a solo record…with abstract sounds, new age, esoteric guitar or something like that”, and I was like “yeah maybe, we will see…” And then my girlfriend also started saying “I really think you should do that solo record”. Okay okay! And then in the end I thought, well why not – let’s see what I can come up with. I started experimenting with a loop pedal, and a lot of ideas just came floating. So I was too scared at that time to do it completely on my own and felt it would be nice to create the songs in more familiar context, so Papir was the obvious choice for a backing band and Jonas as a producer as well.

J. Hubner: Were you ultimately happy with how your first album on your own ended up? I personally loved it, btw.

Nicklas Sørensen: Yeah I think it turned out pretty good. I listen to it once in a while and it’s mostly a satisfying experience.

J. Hubner: So you are now releasing your second solo LP, titled ‘Solo 2’. There seems to be a lot more going on sonically this time. You worked on it with Causa Sui’s Jonas Munk and recorded at his studio. It’s a stunning album. How did the record come together? Were you creating guitar loops and then building upon those? Did you two discuss certain vibes you wanted to hit going in or did you just improvise and build the record as you went along?

Nicklas Sørensen: Again, I started with experimenting with loops and sounds on the guitar. Some old ideas, chord structures, themes, etc… And this time I had a more clear idea about the concept, that I wanted to try and make something without a band. But I still liked the idea of collaborating and sharing musical ideas. Jonas was the obvious choice, we definitely share a lot of musical references and to my ears he is a true master of working in details with the sound. He also contributed with a lot of different creative and musical inputs, so that a lot of significant details and the overall feel and vibe of the album is due to his mastery and creative mind.

J. Hubner: You seem to be a fan of Fender guitars(as am I). What was your guitar of choice for this album? What kind of gear did you guys use to create ‘Solo 2’ with? Any favorite pedals you won’t leave home without?

Nicklas Sørensen: Yeah, I have played my Strat for almost 16 years now! It’s all over the first album and on all the Papir albums. So that was also my choice for this album, hehe. I have a soft spot for digital delays – the classic Boss DD’s and my T.C. Flashback Delay are something that I always bring to the studio.

J. Hubner: Do you ever take your solo work out for live shows? Are there any plans to play any shows to promote ‘Solo 2’?

Nicklas Sørensen: I have played a few concerts – just me, my guitar and my pedals. I like that a lot, it’s nice “to be your own boss”. I don’t have any plans for shows this year, besides a duo concert with Jonas in april. But you never know.

J. Hubner: What’s next for you in 2018? Any ideas for the next solo album? Any new directions you’d like to take your guitar into?

Nicklas Sørensen: I have just got my hands on a 4-track recorder. I think I will spend some time alone experimenting with that. But yeah…no plans for anything specific yet. A new Papir album perhaps (we are already working on it). I guess I would like use more time on improvising and experimenting with sound and soundscapes.


Solo 2  will be released this Friday, January 19th on El Paraiso Records. Grab a copy here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nicklas Sørensen : Solo 2

Nicklas Sørensen most recently blasted dreamy, psychedelic swaths of guitar on Papir’s 2017 record V. Within that Danish three-piece psych rock outfit, Sørensen can go from post-rock stoicism to 60s fuzzed-out freak out in seconds flat. He’s erased those boundary lines that seemed to box in the “guitar hero”. Jazzy introspection, distorted wah wah, and progressive lines all meld into his style. That’s what makes his playing(and Papir for that matter) so unique and vital to modern rock.

In 2016 Sørensen released his first solo LP, titled Solo. It was an all-instrumental record that showcased his ability to use the guitar for more than heavy riffing and mind-melting. He created crystalline soundscapes and motorik-driven heady guitar tracks that veered from early Satriani to Robert Fripp-like perfection, while still retaining a “long drive on a summer night” vibe. He pushed the solo guitar record to a new level.

Nicklas Sørensen is back with his second solo LP on El Paraiso Records titled Solo 2. This time around he recorded the album with Jonas Munk in his Odense studio and the songs are a mixture of Sørensen’s fluid guitar loops and Munk’s analog synths(with some electronic rhythms thrown in for good measure.) The results are a tour-de-force of moody composition and otherworldly vibes.

Like his first solo adventure, the songs on Solo 2 are simply titled as numbers, like “2.1.”, “2.2”, and “2.3” and so on. It’s 6 tracks of slightly ambient, slightly psychedelic, and all-encompassing melody. “2.1” starts the album off on a Brazilian flavor, like some neo-futuristic Charlie Byrd doing his best bossa nova in outer space. The deft rhythmic touches, layered guitar lines, and the ethereal synths that float over the proceedings give the song an almost trance-like feel. This is what I’m talking about when I say Nicklas Sørensen erases those guitar hero boundaries. “2.2” opens with a simple guitar loop to which some melody counterpoints are added. Pretty soon simple percussion is thrown in with some light synth touches that give the song an almost 80s feel. As the song progresses you begin to get lost in the ether as guitars upon synths upon more guitars layer into a wall of beautiful drone. If NEU! had recorded with Richard Dashut in 1982 they might have sounded like this excellent track. “2.3” goes into a more contemplative space. The track itself gives off this sepia-toned feel; aged and weary of the outside world. It puts me in mind of the Brian Ellis & Brian Grainger album At Dusk with its guitar-meets-existential-drift vibe. It’s simply gorgeous.

If you’re listening to this on vinyl, dear readers, now would be the time to flip your record. As we make our way to side B we’re welcomed into this alternate musical reality where heady synths wisp around our heads as psychedelic guitars whirl in the air. “2.4” is carried along with electric piano and fluttering guitar notes that sound as if they’re playing in reverse. The space-y vibe is grounded by the tasteful fretwork of Nicklas Sørensen. Despite all the beautiful ornamentation, this is a guitar record don’t you know? “2.5” opens with a guitar line that puts me in mind of The Motels, but then we’re treated to some Michael Rother vibes in the psychedelic guitar lines in the background. Munk adds distant synth to fill in any gaps that may have needed to be filled. With headphones on this song will ease you into a much more calmer state of mind. “2.6” is all galactic vibes, like you’re looking over the fourth Chrystal Lake of Jupiter as a black hole is swallowing your mind. It’s a beautiful thing, really. Wavering drones slink in the distance as Sørensen plays some extremely tasteful guitar over everything. There’s a real Mark Knopfler feel to the tone of the guitar, but that’s before everything dissipates into a sea of ambient synth.

Nicklas Sørensen continues to push the solo electric guitar record to new levels. With the help of Jonas Munk he even bests himself this time around. He touches on Berlin School headiness and even Steve Reich roams the halls of this excellent LP. Solo 2 is a guitar record for both the musically intellectual and the person looking for some music to keep them company on a long car ride. You don’t have to dig deep to find the treasures here, but if you do you will be rewarded.

8. 2 out of 10

Paul Gilbert : The Everyman’s Guitar Hero

It’s been close to 30 years so my memory may not serve me correctly, but somewhere in the vicinity of the spring of 1989 I got to see and meet Mr. Big guitarist Paul Gilbert. Why do you care? “Paul who? The Mr. Big dude? Yeah, so what?” Will you please let me finish? Thank you. So in the spring of 1989 my guitar teacher heard that Paul Gilbert was doing a guitar clinic at the now defunct Music Spectrum in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Spectrum was the who’s who or what’s what of local music stores. Neal Peart got kits from this place(check some of the late 70s/early 80s Rush albums for the liner notes “thank yous” to MS.) Gilbert was touring the country doing clinics at various music stores for Ibanez, and my guitar teacher Tim Bushong had the forethought to load a few of his in-training guitar slingers into his car and drive us 50 minutes to see Gilbert do some shredding. My older brother at the time was taking lessons from Tim as well, so it turned into a big brother/little brother bonding experience.

Photo courtesy of Paradise Artists

So to give you a little history into Paul Gilbert. Gilbert was from a small suburb outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was born in 1966, and by the time he was 15 years old he’d sent a tape to Shrapnel Records owner Mike Varney about auditioning for Ozzy Osbourne. Varney was blown away by the 15 year old from Pennsylvania. Gilbert moved to Los Angeles and attended GIT(Guitar Institute of Technology) and by the time he was 19 he was an instructor there. Soon after he joined the metal band Racer X and put out some premier shred albums. But in 1989 he left Racer X and formed Mr. Big with Billy Sheehan, Eric Martin, and Pat Torpey.

I owned one Racer X cassette. Second Heat was the one Gilbert album in my collection, and to be honest it was just okay. His playing was out of this world good, but musically it just wasn’t my thing. It was too heavy for its own good, in my opinion. Most of the Shrapnel Records roster was like that. Guys that grew up on Eddie Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix, and most of the AOR-ready rock we hear on classic rock stations now, but in order to show off the speed and neoclassical riffs the band pumped up the metal. When I’d read that Gilbert was in a new band with David Lee Roth’s bassist Billy Sheehan I was pretty excited to hear what they would do.

So on a Thursday evening my brother and I headed to Fort Wayne with our guitar teacher, along with a couple other students, to Music Spectrum to see Paul Gilbert in the flesh and hear some virtuosic guitar playing and mentoring. We arrived and the place was packed. There wasn’t any open carpet anywhere in the place. Mulleted teens and men alike(even a few guitar-slinging chicks if I remember correctly) filled the place to its capacity. Gilbert had a stool set up in the front, along with a 4-track cassette recorder and some PA speakers.  I didn’t know what to expect from the guy, really. I guessed by the looks of him he was maybe my brother’s age(he’s actually a year older than my brother, born in 1966), but I’d never seen any interviews with him. After an introduction and some energetic clapping Gilbert walked to the front with his Ibanez guitar and so began the clinic.

Now I can’t remember specifics, so I’ll hit some highlights:

Gilbert played some pretty eye-popping licks for us all to guffaw at. There was a portion of “Name That Tune” where Paul displayed his array of music history knowledge. During this part my brother yelled out and correctly guessed The Beatles’ “Martha My Dear”, to which Gilbert was impressed. Gilbert also previewed a track from the debut Mr. Big album which hadn’t been released yet. With the 4-track cassette player, he played the backing tracks to “Addicted To That Rush” and perfectly followed along with the rest of the band trapped in the confines of the multi-track recorder. I believe there was a Q&A as well, but I can’t quite recall(a lot has happened in 30 years.) It ended with everyone getting in line so they could personally meet Gilbert and get his autograph. I brought along that copy of Second Heat and Paul kindly signed it. One of Tim’s other students brought his Ibanez guitar and Gilbert signed the back of the guitar neck. I thought that was kind of ridiculous, but whatever.

I walked away from that guitar clinic a fan of not only Paul Gilbert’s guitar playing, but of Paul Gilbert the dude. He came across like someone my brother might’ve hung out with and brought over to the house to listen to tunes with. The guy was as relaxed sitting in a room playing and chatting in front of a room full of hungry wanna-be guitar heroes as he would’ve been had he been chatting in a living room with a couple friends, strumming on his six-string. There was no pretentious, “I’m better than you” attitude coming from this guy at all, yet he’d earned it by being one of the best guitarists in the world at the time.

I went on to buy that first Mr. Big album and thought it was a great mix of superior pop hooks, prodigious playing, and pristine metal-lite that could be played loudly in one’s bedroom or on a family trip in the car without any strange looks from the parental units. The guitar/bass combo of Gilbert and Sheehan was a force to be reckoned with. Pat Torpey was a great drummer in his own right, while singer Eric Martin had the perfect mix of sweet and gruff in his voice as to pull off both great pop melodies and the come hither swagger needed to be a proper late-80s rock outfit. I bought their 1991 follow up Lean Into It as well and that one topped the debut. It had the acoustic singalong “To Be With You” on it, but the highlights were “Green Tinted Sixties Mind” and the hefty “Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy(The Electric Drill Song). That album made Mr. Big a household name(sort of), and I played that album for the most of junior and senior year.

And then that was it…for me, at least.

Seattle took over and I discovered The Kinks, Procol Harum, and Brit pop. The urge to be a guitar slinger was tampered by the urge to be a songwriter. The Shrapnel Records cassettes I’d amassed were designated to an old shoe box, along with those late-80s hard rock cassettes. CDs were in and so was a new era of music for me.

But I never forgot about Paul Gilbert. Despite changing tastes over the years, I’ve always liked Gilbert and his playing. I’d look into what he was doing every once in a while, but it wasn’t until last year that I’d really starting digging into my guitar slinger past and found a treasure trove of Paul Gilbert videos on Youtube. For the past 30 years Paul Gilbert has never stopped making music or doing guitar clinics. In the many that I’ve watched, these videos show a guy that’s never stopped loving playing for people. He seems to still be that 17-year old kid from the suburbs of Pittsburgh playing UFO covers in his room, or excitedly playing his guitar with an electric drill. He still has that urge to share and show others what he’s learned. He still comes across as a dude coming by the house to listen to records and jam in the basement. I love that.

I think one of my favorite videos that I’ve discovered is of Gilbert on a Japanese game show where guitarists name a band and another guitarist has to name the guitar player in that band and then play a portion of one of their songs in that guitarist’s style. It was Paul Gilbert, Marty Friedman, and a Japanese guitar player. Gilbert pretty much ruled the game. To me it shows just how much Paul Gilbert loves music in general.

I won’t be on a buying spree for Mr. Big and Paul Gilbert albums(at least not yet.) But it’s great I can jump into the wayback machine while watching his instructional videos or live performances and be reminded once again how much I like the guy. And you should check out his most recent album, Stone Pushing Uphill Man. It’s mostly instrumental cover versions of some of his favorite songs. It’s pretty great. His cover of The Police’s “Murder By Numbers” is particularly awesome.

 

Ulrich Schnauss & Jonas Munk : Passage

The newest collaboration between Ulrich Schnauss and Jonas Munk, titled simply Passage, is a heady mix of intellectual ambient andbiz-passage euphoric electronic. You get Schnauss’ synths layered with Munk’s liquid guitar lines, sometimes with drum programming and sometimes on their own. The result is a complex and engaging record that offers the best both musicians have to offer.

If you’re at all familiar with Ulrich Schnauss and Jonas Munk, then you should know this isn’t just another in a long line of electronic records. Schnauss is an accomplished electronic musician and composer who’s been creating beautifully ornamented electronic albums for over 20 years. His 2001 album Far Away Trains Passing By is a classic in the genre. Since 2014 Schnauss has been an official member of the iconic Tangerine Dream. Jonas Munk is an accomplished musician/producer in his own right, making electronic records under the name Manual, as well as playing guitar for the Danish rockers Causa Sui. He’s also released two records under his own name, first Pan in 2012 and Absorb Fabric Cascade in 2014. Back in 2011 these two got together for the first time and released the ethereal Ulrich Schnauss and Jonas Munk. Six years later they have made a sequel to that collaboration. Passage does not suffer from the “sophomore slump”. In fact, it surpasses its predecessor.

Schnauss and Munk know how to make a heady mix of ambient tones and daydream-y vibes. Tracks like “Amaris”, “Genau Wie Damais”, and “Anywhere But Here” cascade like technicolor falls on some distant world. The noise coming from the speakers is hypnotic but not hallucinogenic. It’s an all-natural high that bubbles and swells from a song like the mysterious “Intervention: Sol”. Sometimes it’s hard to tell where Schnauss’ synth ends and Munk’s guitar begins. “MST” brightens up with an early 80s electronic vibe thanks to some boisterous drum programming. “Intervention: Mane” gives us plenty of woozy vibe that takes us from the dance floor to floating in space.

A great thing about this album is that these guys don’t rely on atmospheric swaths of noise alone to carry them. There are moments of blissed-out ambient, but there are also moments of almost dance floor vibes that make the album all the more engaging.

Side two’s “Ao Hinode” feels like some sort of spectral light shining down on us mere mortals, while “Spellbreaker” has an almost mid-80s Cure vibe. This track seems to morph into a million moods before we even get to the halfway point. It’s an elegant shock to the system. “Intervention: Stjerner” is a beautiful and bubbling ride of synths that seems to owe a bit of debt to Schnauss’ other gig Tangerine Dream. It’s hypnotic bliss. “Caffeine Blues” shows Munk in top form with some exquisite guitar, while Schnauss backs him up with some heady sounds. “Coastal Path” ends the album on a sun-soaked drift of cascading clouds and road trip-worthy vibes.

Passage shows two musical masters at the top of their game. Each are front and center, but never feel as if they’re vying for our attention. They come together, synth and guitar, to paint good vibes and heady, existential bliss. Ulrich Schnauss and Jonas Munk serve only one master here, and that is the song. They follow the muse wherever she takes them. The musical mind melding of Ulrich Schnauss and Jonas Munk, so far, is the best thing to hit my ears in 2017.

8.3 out of 10

 

Totally Wired

Growing up there were four guitarists that were always mentioned when it came to dudes that changed the game when it came to rock and roll guitar. Jimmy, Jimi, Eric, and Jeff. For those not in the know(and if you’re not, welcome. Glad to see you), that would be Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck. Now before you puff out your chest and get all defensive and say “Well what about Ritchie Blackmore, Angus Young, David Gilmour, Allan Holdsworth, Eddie Van Halen, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Marc Bolan, Vernon Reid, Gary Moore, John McLaughlin, etc, yadda yadda, and so forth???” Let me say right off the bat that picking the most important guitarist is a subjective thing, okay? But when you’re talking the late 60s, the British Invasion, and the birth of the psychedelic age no other names were mentioned more than Page, Hendrix, Clapton, and Beck. These guys redefined the instrument for the next generation of rock and roll. You cannot argue that. There were outliers for sure, but none created the obsessive fandom as these four did. And in my opinion(subjective, remember?), none innovated playing and what could be done with six strings, some pickups, and a tube amp more than these Four Horsemen of the six string apocalypse.

dsc04967Of these four, I’ve always felt Jeff Beck usually came in last on the list. He certainly didn’t deserve to be last on the list, but the guy was quiet. He was interested in blowing minds with his playing, then right after heading out to his barn and tuning up his race car. He’d show up to gigs in the early days with oil-stained hands from working in the garage. He had a love for cars like he had a love for guitars, and by the man’s playing you know he LOVED them both eternally. But really, how do you compete with the public and private lives of guys like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Jimi Hendrix? I mean, Clapton, Page, and Beck all played in The Yardbirds. When one left for solo ambitions or more progressive band situations another prodigious player came in to take over. While Clapton left to join John Mayall and his Bluesbreakers and Page took off to form The New Yardbirds, which eventually turned into Led Zeppelin, Jeff Beck did the solo thing. He had some decent success with The Jeff Beck Group, and two amazing solo albums came of it. Truth and Beck-Ola were powerhouse albums that combined Beck’s love of blues with heavier tones. And with Rod Stewart on vocals and Ronnie Wood on bass no one could argue with what Beck had going on. But while he was redefining heavy blues, Clapton was creating the power trio with Cream and Page was making some heavy blues of his own with Led Zeppelin’s first album. Jeff Beck was overshadowed by the popularity Clapton and Page were gaining in their respective post-Yardbirds careers. I mean, how do you compete with stealing George Harrison’s wife, Aleister Crowley, Hobbits, JJ Cale, and some serious drug addiction? And Hendrix? He was a firestorm of musical, spiritual, and political movements. His playing was uncharted territory, and his look was flamboyant. He played his guitar with his teeth, set it on fire, and used feedback and distortion like a painter uses paint. He was bound to move mountains with his optimism and need to constantly move forward. Then, he died.

You can’t compete with a dead man.

But the thing is, Jeff Beck wasn’t competing with any of them. He seemed to take the quieter route, redefining his sound and skill with each album. Going from heavy blues squalls to heavy metal with Beck, Bogart, & Appice. But then in 1975 Jeff Beck released one of the premier instrumental guitar albums with Blow By Blow. His sound was funky, smooth, and slick as hell. He’d flown to the United States in the early 70s in the hopes of recording a record in Philadelphia in the Mowtown studios with Motown’s finest musicians. When he arrived and actually got into the studio they asked him if he had charts and he said no. He figured they could just jam and see what they could come up with. They laughed him out of the studio. He then met with Stevie Wonder and the two hit it off. Beck wanted Wonder to write a song for him to record on his next album, so Wonder wrote “Superstition”. Wonder decided he wanted to keep that one for himself(to Beck’s dismay), and instead gave Beck “Thelonious”. Jeff Beck did end up playing some incredible guitar on Wonder’s song “Lookin’ For Another Pure Love” off the Talking Book album. But all of this would lead to Jeff Beck putting out Blow By Blow, an almost jazzy smooth funk album. It had a tight feel. The guitar playing was refined and tasteful, but still pushing boundaries. Beck relied on the rhythm section of Phil Chen on bass and Richard Bailey on drums to give him solid footing, which allowed Beck and keyboardist Max Middleton to lay down some serious melody and grit. To this day, I think it’s the best Steely Dan album that Steely Dan never put out.

dsc04965So what do you do to follow something like that up? Well you throw all that jazzy feel out the window and get loud and brash. That’s what Jeff Beck did the following year when he joined forces with Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Jan Hammer in 1976 and released the wildly extravagant and fusion-esque Wired. Everything about this album was the complete opposite of Blow By Blow. If these two records were fighters, Blow By Blow came out of the corner floating like a butterfly and casually got around to beating the listener’s ass. Wired, on the other hand, came running out of the corner like a bull in a china shop. The smooth Les Paul tone was replaced with the teeth-chattering tone of the Stratocaster. Hammer’s out of this world synth playing was like an alien in comparison to Max Middleton’s tasteful electric piano. Even the drumming was in some other terrestrial plane. Narada Michael Walden was a fusion player through and through, but could still lay a good funky groove down when needed. The whole album was like a 180 degrees from the year before.

Me? I bought both albums at the same time nearly 15 years ago. After hearing “Freeway Jam” I knew I was destined to own Blow By Blow. With everything I’d read it seemed that both Blow By Blow and Wired were companion pieces, so I figured I’d order both. Save money on shipping. While I instantly connected with Blow By Blow, Wired was a different story. I was sort of taken aback by the harshness of the guitar and Hammer’s synth work. They were very much in your face. There were tracks that stood out instantly. “Led Boots” was the opener and it felt like one hell of an opening salvo. All of the new components were front and center; Hammer’s space age-y synth sound, Walden’s progressive playing, and Beck’s biting new guitar tone. But they meshed well together. Next track “Come Dancing” is a fun groovy number that has some more restrained blues playing by Beck, as well as some of Max Middleton’s tasty electric piano. All around it’s a great track. Then we’re hit in the face with, in my opinion, the best track on the album. Beck and company tackle Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”, a song so groovy and funky that you forget what album you’re even listening to. It’s an ode to both the past and the present. Beck plays some of his most fluid lines on this album, as well as evolving his playing into some next phase category. I really feel this song should be played to every up and coming guitarist when needing a lesson in innovation.

dsc04966So Wired hits you with a one-two-three punch before “Head For Backstage Pass” comes roaring in like a fusion smorgasbord. Slap bass, big drums, and some great electric piano come roaring in. While impressive, it’s not really a song that grabs you like what we’ve heard before. “Blue Wind” seems to be Jan Hammer’s moment to shine. It’s a lot of synth-y noise, like a precursor to the Miami Vice theme. Take from it what you will. “Sophie” has its moments, but to me it just sounds like a so-so Larry Coryell song. The back and forth between Beck’s guitar and Hammer’s synth just doesn’t do much for me. “Play With Me” gets some of that groove back with some great clavinet playing. There’s almost this junkyard wonkiness to the song that makes it endearing. It feels like a real palate cleanser. “Love Is Green” is a beautifully baroque piece that ends the album.

So after reading what I just wrote I think Wired has grown on me a bit over the years. Even in its most pompous moments it seems to revel in the creative process, which I think redeems it. Jeff Beck’s playing was still evolving and growing, over 10 years into his career. He wasn’t satisfied with rehashing all the old riffs and influences(like that Eric and Jimmy guy were at this point.) And he felt the need to surround himself with players and composers that would challenge him, and possibly even show him up. He wasn’t fine with the aristocracy of rock and roll. He gave it the middle finger and redefined it at nearly every turn.

So you want to know what my list would look like, guitar innovating-wise? Beck, Hendrix, Page, and Blackmore. Clapton? He’s no God to me, folks.

Editor’s Note: I must make a note here since I failed to mention it earlier that Sir George Martin produced both Blow By Blow and Wired. His tasteful ear and engineering prowess is all over Blow By Blow. However, he couldn’t stand Wired. He thought it was too loud and unhinged. It was hard for him to produce it, so a lot of that went to Beck and Hammer. I can see his point, but I think they both are worth some serious listening time. 

 

Beautiful Noise

I think one of my absolute favorite musical discoveries of the last few years is the band Medicine. There’s something about the wayIMG_1456 they made pop songs into something righteously loud, discordant, and abrasive but never lost that magic ingredient: melody. Their first two albums, Shot Forth Self Living and The Buried Life, were both these incredibly diverse musical worlds where pure pop music collided with experimental noise, dream pop, and some of the more trance-like parts of shoegaze. Though, if you listen to those heavy dance beats there was more of the Madchester scene in Medicine’s DNA than say My Bloody Valentine, Ride, or Chapterhouse. Let it be known though, Medicine guitarist, songwriter, and singer Brad Laner created a guitar sound that could’ve easily fit into the Kevin Shields sound catalog, except I think Laner was a little more precise than even Shields(ooh, controversy!). His buzzsaw tone on those first couple records has been borrowed time and time again over the years, and yet he never gets the credit he so deserves(in an interview I had with him I’d made mention that Trent Reznor seemed to had adopted that Medicine guitar tone on The Downward Spiral and Mr. Laner didn’t disagree.) Brad Laner seemed to be pulling influences from everywhere and running those influences through a filter that made Medicine’s sound totally unique to them.

So if Medicine were so unique, why did it take me 20 years to find out about them? Hell if I know, but the timing couldn’t have been more perfect, really. I discovered their album via Brooklyn’s Captured Tracks record label in early 2013. By that summer Medicine had reunited and had put their first album out in nearly 20 years with the original line-up of Laner, Beth Thompson, and Jim Goodall. To The Happy Few took those harsh guitar tones and dance-y beats and honed them down to their true essence. The result was this hybrid of dream and noise pop with almost jazz-like vocal arrangements and harmonies. The reunion gave us one more Medicine record, the 2014 masterpiece Home Everywhere.

IMG_1455When Home Everywhere came out I preordered the limited edition version(of course I did) that came with Brad Laner’s score for the shoegaze documentary Beautiful Noise. I was just as excited to get that soundtrack as I was Home Everywhere I think, as it was just Brad Laner creating these sound collages of both peaceful, dreamy passages and also harsher, biting moments of noise. Some were older pieces he’d created over the years, while some were created specifically for the film.

Have I seen Beautiful Noise? No I haven’t and I feel bad about that. I have every intention of purchasing a copy of it so I can watch it as much as I want whenever the mood strikes me. I’m a fan of shoegaze, though I think the term has been overused over the years. And really, I don’t consider Medicine to be a shoegaze band. Despite that, I think Brad Laner did an amazing job curating these sounds for the film. All that’s left for me to do is watch the movie so I can hear these pieces in action. Cause that’s what it’s all about, the action. Am I right?

IMG_1454Listening to the score Laner created is a dizzying experience. It’s mostly these avante garde pieces of noise. Paint splotches dropped continuously on a music canvas, so much so that the layers of color start to become something completely different from when it started. His approach here is like a noisier version of Brian Eno’s ambient works. If Eno had been obsessed with guitar, buzzing amps, and effects boxes this is the stuff we would’ve heard from him in the late 70s/early 80s. I don’t know for certain if everything you hear on this score is Laner and guitar or not. If I was told it was guitar and keyboards I’d believe it. If I was told it was just guitar through a mile of pedals and rackmount effects processors I’d believe that, too. That’s the beauty of the work here. Laner captures the essence of the shoegaze movement perfectly with his musical patchwork. There’s a feeling of druggy wooziness with the temporal lobe stabbing spikes of sheer guitar squall following right behind. He’s not aping shoegaze bands here, either. He’s not creating some generic roll call of MBV-like noise or Ride-ish riffs; this is a lathe cut of original hazy noise that not even your best pharmaceuticals could come close to.

One thing I’m curious about is the production. Overall these tracks are pretty lo-fi sounding. Sort of muddy and distant for the most part. There are a couple moments where Laner has a beat layered and quieter melodies laid on top, but for the most part if I was told this was recorded directly to Maxell 90 minute cassette tapes to a Tascam 424 Portastudio I’d totally buy that. I’d totally love that, too. Brad Laner does some seriously experimental work with Medicine’s drummer Jim Goodall in the cassette-only releases of Debt of Nature. That’s early Sebadoh territory without any of the songs and all the field recordings and random noise. I suppose it doesn’t matter how this soundtrack was recorded. I’m just really nosy that way.

I don’t know how available this album is anymore, since it was only sold with the Medicine Home Everywhere LP. If you dig ambient music with touches of Metal Machine Music, Brian Eno, and even Adrian Belew’s Desire Caught By The Tail, as well as his work on NINs Ghosts I-IV, then I say you should get on that laptop thing and plunk around till you can find a copy of this. It’s well worth your time.

 

Fighting Dragons With Stratocasters

Last week was a hell of a long week. I’m not even sure if it’s really over. There’s a possibility I’m still at my desk last Tuesday and I’m currently in some sort of state of suspended animation. I’m stuck in-between the space/time continuum bookends like some discarded copy of The Canterbury Tales or What To Expect When You’re Expecting. No. I won’t even entertain that thought because more than likely it’s true. I’ll just take the blue pill and go about my day. I need to indulge my inner 14-year old for a moment. I need to talk about something unique. Something entertaining. Something about a Swedish guitarist with a dragon complex.

Swedish guitarist with a dragon complex? Did you read that right? Yes, you did.

Not long after I first started to play guitar back in August of 1986 my older brother introduced me to the guitar stylings ofIMG_1019 Yngwie Malmsteen. My brother liked hitting up K-Mart or 3D and buying these hard rock compilations on cassette. You could sample some of the latest and greatest without wasting your money on an entire Grim Reaper, Manowar, or Accept album. One of these compilations had Yngwie Malmsteen’s song “I Am A Viking”. There really is nothing heavier than a song about vikings. Unless it’s a song about vikings battling a Kraken. Or dragons. I was hooked. For Christmas that year I got my first stereo. A Soundesign home stereo with an AM/FM radio, dual cassette, ten band graphic equalizer, and a turntable. On December 26th my first purchase was two albums on vinyl: Judas Priest’s Screaming For Vengeance and Yngwie Malmsteen’s Trilogy. Priest’s Screaming For Vengeance is one of those records that will live in infamy in the hallowed hall of metal, while Malmsteen’s Trilogy will be lining the floors of those halls along with so many other overstuffed, pompous, self-indulgent records that came out of the same era. But still, this album did have a couple moments of guitar zen(I can see that look on your face. Stop it right now.)

I will state right here that I think Yngwie Malmsteen was(and probably still is) an egotistical shit head that looked down on all of his contemporaries like they were all children in his presence. He used to brag in interviews he could play Van Halen’s “Eruption” with one arm tied behind his back. He’d laugh off comparisons to other guitarists of the time as if they were all jokes. His album liner notes were littered with “thank yous” to Bach, Paganini, and Segovia; as well as Ritchie Blackmore and Jimi Hendrix. He was seemingly obsessed with medieval tales of dragons, queens in love, and outer space. But I will say this, the talk of his playing being soulless and nothing more than just speed over feel is completely off base. Despite the fact that yes, his playing was extremely fast and fell into this category of baroque classical metal, he had a hell of a lot of feel. Going back and revisiting his albums recently(I was bored, what can I say?), I have to say the guy had a ton of feel. I think Ritchie Blackmore is one of the most underrated rock and roll guitarists in the last 45 years. He had speed, but he also had this melodic lean and royal fluidity to his playing that put you in not only the arena of rock, but also some marble-floored chamber with a view of the sixth moon of Randar. Malmsteen sounded as if he was channeling both a Bach violin concerto and Deep Purple’s “Highway Star” on every track. He was an extremely fast player, but he also had a good amount of feel in there as well. Blackmore was a big part of that.

I think Trilogy was a high point for him. And it was a high point for me at 13 years old. I knew there was no way I’d ever get to that level of playing as a budding guitar player, so I decided I’d go my own path with playing. I just enjoyed hearing the guy play, really. After Trilogy he put out his most successful record, Odyssey. Scoring Joe Lyn Turner as a vocalist was a big plus for Malmsteen as he finally got a singer that wasn’t annoyingly loud and twelve octaves above what dogs can hear. Turner was like the Steve Perry of metal, and “Heaven Tonight” proved that as it became sort of an MTV hit. This album was followed by the live Trial By Fire : Live In Leningrad that highlighted some of the best tracks on Odyssey, as well as some serious guitar wanking and a cool cover of Hendrix’ “Spanish Castle Magic” that proved Malmsteen could pull off some serious blues licks. I got the VHS copy of this concert for Christmas in 1988. Watching Malmsteen, Turner, the Swedish brothers Jens and Anders Johansson on keys and drums, and some guy playing bass, it was cool and also kind of annoying. Mainly because of the spandex bulges and eyeliner. But you do get a good idea that underneath all the titillating dance moves and musical showboating these guys were excellent musicians. This was, sadly, the end of Yngwie. For me, anyways. He put out Eclipse in 1990 and it was horrible. He’d dropped the neo classical speed shows and brought on some sissy boy to sing ballad crap that actually made Malmsteen sound like a secondhand John Norum(as if a firsthand Norum was any better.)

So nearly thirty years later can I sit around and listen to Yngwie Malmsteen? No. I was pretty much done with the guy after I heard Joe Satriani for the first time. But after I picked up Extreme’s debut album in August of 1989 and heard “Play With Me” I knew that a new era had begun in guitar wankery. Still, I’ll always have “Queen In Love” and “Trilogy Suite Op: 5” whenever I want to go down guitar memory lane. You know, just for fun.

Time to dust off the Strat and slay a dragon or two. In spandex, natch.

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