Spencer Park, 2011, CD album, 42m 50s
£9 or more (£name your price for DD)
Matt Stevens is an artist whose work I have followed closely, for several reasons, since I started regularly writing about music. Whatever reason I first came across his work, the reason I have continued to pay attention is that I really like what he does (so far so good, anyway). I have to admit that I’m not usually a fan of ‘prog’ per se: although I like music to be progressive in some way, there is a historical tendency for instrumental guitar rock to suffer from either tedious noodling, empty pyrotechnics, or both. So if I tell you that Stevens plays instrumental guitar music in a variety of odd time signatures, don’t get the wrong idea: it’s technically sophisticated, yes, but it is also entertaining, ear pleasing, and generally rewarding to listen to.
The core of his practice is built from live looping, where he records a short phrase, and then plays additional parts over the top, some of which may also be recorded and looped in layers which can add up to quite complex arrangements. This enables a solo artist to give an instrumental performance of some depth, without resorting to pre-recorded backing; the practicalities of process also favour a short phrase approach to composition, which makes for accessible and episodic pieces of music, whose structure may be intricate, but is always clear. As with many live loopers, Stevens has allowed himself some additional lassitude in the studio, but with Relic he goes further, and enlists a good deal of help from some friends.
The way these voices are integrated, particularly the bass and drums, makes perfect sense, and moves his sound into some new territory without depriving it of any of its distinctive character. Even without these new elements in the arrangements, I can hear a real development in Stevens’ compositional approach, with a more wide ranging sense of harmony, and a greater emotional range. The full band arrangements enhance and intensify without substantially modifying, although there is an unsurprising tendency for it to sound like an acoustic version of The Fierce And The Dead (his cohorts on bass and drums, Kev Feazey and Stuart Marshall respectively, are also the other members of that band). Things work well as they are, but there will be a need to avoid the projects’ sounds converging in future releases, or there won’t be much point giving them different names.
One of Stevens’ (and his collaborators’) great strengths, is how lightly he wears his odd time signatures. It can be hard, if tackling a wide variety of odd times for a project, to learn to phrase them all naturally; Stevens is aided here by his live looping approach, which keeps phrase lengths short, and obviates the need to avoid over-stressing the bar lines. None of the time feels sound contrived, and it would be easy to miss that there was anything out of the ordinary going on unless you were trying to dance. I get the impression (and it’s the impression that’s important, even if it’s mistaken) that these pieces are written in a phrasing that works, and only later resolved into a set time: somehow the monster metal riff of ‘Frost’ sounds right in 7/4, and it’s hard to imagine it having the same impact if it was wrenched into four.
‘Frost’ is the most radical departure from the established Matt Stevens oeuvre, with its heavy distorted guitar and rapid-fire screaming solo (I’d like to hear this man do a metal album, but that’s another story). The closer, ‘30 END’ is quite a departure in another way however: it has a haunting melody that voice leads its way beautifully through a tonal-chromatic chord sequence of a rather less transgressive sort than Stevens usually employs, and he milks the emotions with strings, somehow managing to avoid sounding sentimental in the process. I think I detect a new degree of maturity and diversity at work.
It can be a big ask to move listeners without the use of vocals, particularly with a rock vocabulary, but this is an album that successfully expands the language of rock. Relic is clever, even witty, technically accomplished and musically sophisticated, and it addresses what you might think is a specialist area of interest (instrumental rock not being the most widely listened genre), but I would recommend it to anyone. It’s accessible, entertaining, richly stimulating and, yes, moving; these songs will take you on journeys if you let them. Matt Stevens has not been resting on his laurels, but has been continually pursuing new and interesting projects; his consequent growth and development as a musician are in evidence on this beautiful and well judged recording, which is, for my money, his best release yet.