Thursday, March 11, 2010

Album review: Matt Stevens, "Echo"

As all who know me know, I am a mono-tasker. At best. Additionally, I'm fairly easily-distracted.

So when I'm studying, particularly in places where there are competing noises, I need some sort of music for "white noise," to cancel out everything else. It can't feature vocals, and it can't be soundtracks for movies I'll be tempted to visualize. It should be just engaging enough, but not distracting.

To meet that need, I have Phil Keaggy instrumentals, some Celtic music, some fusion jazz — and now Matt Stevens.

Since I've featured some instrumental guitar music, Matt Stevens contacted me directly to see if I'd be interested in reviewing his album, and I was glad to take the offer. It is available for download here.  Payment is "name your price."

Matt is a North Londoner, a guitarist who provides his own layers of sound for his own compositions. He's quite a prolific presence.

What did I think?

Funny thing about my musical tastes. Some of my long-term favorite music, I did not like at first listen. I didn't like Chicago at first — and now they've been my favorite band for nearly forty years. Some Chicago songs turned me off at first, then became favorites.

It was similar with this album. At first listen, my reaction was mixed. I didn't love it. It is all acoustic. I did not immediately warm to the thump-knock percussion (presumably off the body of the guitar), found myself longing for real drums. I found the direction of the leads odd. The rhythm backing was strange, not immediately easy to get a hold of.

Challenging, is the word.

Then, as I listened, every single track grew on me. Stevens is rather a daring guitarist. Either he's completely fooled me, or he deliberately takes his music into dissonant ranges, just to avoid the numbingly predictable.

The opening track ("Burning Bandstands") starts off with an insistent strum, then shifts into a melodic, semi-flamenco style, with more changes on the way, ranging in feel from mellow and relaxed, to urgent and probing. And that's just one song. Then "Airships" mixes a driving beat with mixed tempo, and a haunting recurrent melody. "Drama in the Coals" follows with a pell-mell journey feel, its signature-line weaving in and out, then providing the final notes of the song.

"Flies in the Basement" again brings in something of a more Spanish feel, combined with fast-paced percussion and harmonic accents. Then "Snow Part 3" brings it way down (perhaps too much), into a sloow, hazy jazzy feel. But don't get too relaxed; "Chasing the Sun" gets us back to a run, with a compelling beat and refrain.

Track 8 is "West Green," with a very Reggae feel, and some complex layering and changes. (At one point, the  one-man Reggae band evidently heads for outer space.) The final track ("Echo") is mellow and pleasant, featuring what I now see as Stevens' fondness for change-ups.

Ah, there it is. Now I see one reason I like him, why the songs stay with me. Early Chicago attracted me by the complexity and changes in its first albums. Though his music is nothing like Chicago, Stevens has that same sensibility: most of these songs go over various landscapes, involving several mid-course alterations.

I recommend it, and will be looking forward to his second album, due this summer.


Fred Butler said...

Funny thing about my musical tastes. Some of my long-term favorite music, I did not like at first listen. I didn't like Chicago at first — and now they've been my favorite band for nearly forty years. Some Chicago songs turned me off at first, then became favorites.

When I was in Jr. High band, we use to play "25 or 6 to 4" for basketball games.

How's that for being slapped in the face by mortality?

Thanks for the heads up about the album.

Solameanie said...

I think you'd probably like Steve Hackett as a guitarist. His albums cross all genres -- rock, classical etc. He's got two nylon classical guitar albums that are wonderful.

Pooka said...

Take a look at Peter Pupping. Rather pretty classical guitar. Another would be Jason Carter with quite a diverse collection of sounds.

Matt Stevens said...

Thanks do much for posting that - wonderful mate. Your review made me think. Cheers

DJP said...

Sorry, I never meant to do that! (c;

Thanks for dropping by, Matt. Your music stays with me, and I really like that.

I find many of the tracks very evocative, very emotional. "Burning Bandstands," as well as a couple of other compositions, felt like open-carriage rides through a meadow on a day of sunshine and clouds... sort of an emotional chiaroscuro.

Just driving in to work today, "West Green" was playing in my mind. I enjoy the light, strummed punctuations.

I resisted any temptation to correspond with you before the review, so that it would be my impressions, period. So I wonder: did I catch what drives your composition — that desire to fill each song with variation, spark, unpredictable variety? I love that.

One bonus question, if you don't mind: who are your inspirations?

Matt Stevens said...

My inspirations are loads of stuff from the Beatles to Heavy Metal to Jazz to classical music and folk. The songs just sort of arrive - inspiration seem to strike but some come in minutes some can take 10 years - cray and there doesn't seem to be any real pattern to it!! Why that is I don't really know - I suppose if you could make it work every time you would wouldn't you? Speak soon and thanks again for blogging about my music.

Matt Stevens said...

PS - you made me think in a good way!!