Orbital Productions ORBCD0012011, 2011, CD album, 1hr 12m 19s
Rock music is such an integral part of our audio culture that it has almost become invisible as a thing in itself: it doesn’t sound like rock music to many ears, in many contexts, but just like music. Furthermore, because of the way in which it is usually experienced, as a currency of mass culture, and thus a vehicle for a whole raft of subtly differentiated associations, those associations tend to obscure the physical ‘aurality’ of the music. The song is heard, with all its lyrical denotations, and the points of identification around which a listening subject may construct itself, but because that listening subject is typically alert to the connotations that either confirm or subvert it rather than the sonic signifiers that convey those meanings, the texture of the music can become inaudible. One way to refocus attention on it is to eliminate the denotational, and to do away with vocals, or at least with lyrics. The Inner Road expose their melodies and textures to undistracted scrutiny in just this way, constructing them with commensurate care and attention to detail.
Visions collects twelve compositions built on a well informed understanding of tonal harmony and rock vocabulary, although it is a selective vocabulary, one not given to the profanities of outsider music. Complex soundscapes are formed from accretions of guitar and expertly designed synthesiser patches, mainly using sounds of the sort associated with FM synthesis rather than old school analogue farts and bloops. Guitarist Phil Braithwaite tends to get lost in the general lushness of the ensemble sections, his personality emerging mainly in his role as a melodist: in fact, although Steve Gresswell’s keyboards are dominant, the most distinctive rhythm section voice is strangely the bass (which is uncredited: I assume Braithwaite or Gresswell must have played it – if it’s programmed they’ve made an exceptionally good job of it). Fortunately, both men are accomplished soloists, with a good instinct for a well turned melodic contour.
The compositions are assembled largely from three sorts of texture: the groove, or ensemble section; the thematic melody; and the solos, apparently improvised (but quite possibly composed). The first two departments are characterised most notably by Gresswell’s sound shaping chops, and his extremely deft touch in giving each patch the voicings and phrasing it demands. A good example of this is the sax-like sound in ‘Day Of The Sun’, which is played with a real sense of breath, and could easily pass itself off as an EWI part. The solos, although Gresswell shows himself more than capable, are clearly Braithwaite’s bag. He uses a moderate distortion, a predominantly pentatonic and diatonic vocabulary, and a classic approach to phrasing, but puts his own stamp on these excursions with a powerful sense of narrative dynamics, racking up the drama, and pulling it back when he needs to, as much through his phrasing as through the intensity of his playing.
The musical materials are very much tonal, rather than modal, and mainly diatonic (within shifting key centres), with only very subtle chromatic elements. Within these limits, the two men show themselves to be sophisticated and creative composers, but very rarely push at the boundaries of their chosen idiom. Similarly, their rhythmic approach is very regular, and although it accommodates occasional excursions into ‘difficult’ territory (such as a brief outbreak of 9/4 time), it generally reins in any tendency to throw the listener off balance. Melodies are well ordered, with symmetrical and logical phrase structures reminiscent in effect of late Classical music, and the whole listening experience is somehow contained, with an affirmative, supportive feel that reminds me of the notoriously accidental-free ‘Sailing By’ with which BBC Radio 4 closes its broadcasts at night.
This consistently positive emotional tone is at its best on a song like ‘Lost Man’, which for all the potential connotations of its title is an expression of unbridled joy, singing out in celebration like Earth Wind And Fire. Elsewhere, the harmonies move in ways that create dramatic movement, but the movement is usually from one mode of feeling good to another; this is resolutely optimistic music, which makes a great soundtrack to the imagined documentary of daily life. What it does not do is challenge the listener. It neither challenges us to reflect deeply on its musical material, nor to examine our own perceptions or responses; it encourages us, rather, to absorb it uncritically, and to assimilate its atmosphere to our own moods. The Inner Road describe their music as ‘symphonic’: it doesn’t have the long term thematic explorations or key centre narrative I would associate with the symphonic, but it has its broad brush, epic feel in spades. These are two very gifted and technically accomplished musicians, and while I respond most to music with a little more bite, or even pain in it, this is a powerful piece of work.