Esoteric Recordings EANTCD027 2014, DD & CD album, 41m 53s
£7.99 DD £10.95 CD
Matt Stevens has a particular approach as a solo performer; he gigs on his own, with an acoustic guitar, and he plays instrumental music. He’s a great player, but he doesn’t tackle the challenge of solo performance by throwing a heap of complex technique at the problem; instead, he uses live looping technology to accompany himself. He builds up a pattern of rhythm and harmony, in anything from one to several layers, and plays melody over the top (or not, depending on what else is going on). You can see this if you go to one of his gigs. He’ll start playing, then after a while he’ll stop, but what he’s just been playing will carry on; then he’ll play something else, which may also continue under its own steam while he adds another element; eventually it all changes abruptly into the next section. It works well, and it’s garnered him an impressive following for an instrumental solo guitarist. It’s also been well documented, on several records. There are live recordings, on which you can hear exactly what Stevens does when it’s just him, a guitar and a pedalboard; and there are (prior to this one) three studio albums. It’s a slightly odd idea, if you think about it, to make a studio album on the basis of a creative practice such as the one I’ve just described; the whole point of the live show is that it’s live. What the audience is witnessing, in essence, is the construction of a multi-track recording in real time, so when the multi-track recording is constructed at leisure in the studio, the specific characteristics of that working method might seem more like limitations than opportunities. However, it is what it is, and the particular forms of Stevens’ imaginative and melodic compositions have owed much to the requirements of his performance technique. Echo and Ghost, his first two albums, were very close to his live show, although the latter featured more studio craft, as well as his The Fierce And The Dead bandmates Kev Feazey and Stuart Marshall. Relic was a much more constructed affair, and featured arrangements that sounded either like an acoustic version of The Fierce And The Dead, or just like The Fierce And The Dead, as well as material that sounded like the Matt Stevens we’d been conditioned to expect. Which brings us to Lucid: here Stevens eschews much notion of documenting or representing his live show (which as far as I’m aware, is not a million miles away from what it was when he released Echo in 2008). There are three tracks which are basically just him and some pedals, and he still presents some compositions that sound as though they might have been born out of his live looping practice, in that they are episodic, they are riff-based (with much repetition of short phrases), and when they make rhythm their field of play, they tend to do so with odd meters, constructed additively on a relatively short cycle. But does this sound like one man, an acoustic guitar and a loop pedal? No. It sounds like an epic, continent-bestriding avant-rock colossus.
Stevens has his taproots in the soil of a different underground to the now burgeoning world of prog, and was initially bemused when his music was described as such, or when he was invited to play under that rubric. However, it’s hard to deny that his music is progressive, as it’s always been inventive, forward looking stuff, and even when he plays acoustically he employs the language of rock; so progressive rock, as a descriptive rather than a purely stylistic label, is not a totally inappropriate one. That being said, when Stevens lets rip, or even when he pumps out some mellow chords on acoustic with his characteristic driving, downstroke-heavy strumming style, it’s easy enough to tell that his sensibilities are situated in a post-punk landscape. That these worlds of practice used to be regarded as inherently, and irreconcilably antithetical should not concern us over much. Punk is in rude health, and continues on its raw, direct and visceral path; similarly, mainstream prog-rock is as full of symphonic pomp as ever, and undergoing a startling resurgence. And between (or beyond) these poles there are, as there have always been, many creative musicians whose interests lead them to employ whatever stylistic and formal materials will get the job done, and who don’t really care whether you think it’s ‘noise-rock’, ‘avant-prog’ or ‘misanthropic technical death-grind’. Some of Stevens’ influences have always been claimed as their own by the prog community, and his liking for odd time signatures, or atonal melodic materials, for example, situate him toward the ‘art’ end of rock music’s ‘art-pop’ continuum; but he tends to articulate his ideas in terms of powerful, immersive grooves and simple, haunting melodies. Lucid features some of his most prog sounding work to date, thanks to some soaring lead guitar lines (the opening to ‘The Bridge’ is a good example), and even some out-and-out shredding, as heard on the brief but intense ‘The Ascent’, which features guests comprising something of a prog supergroup (Pat Mastelotto of King Crimson and Naked Truth on drums, Lorenzo Feliciati of Naked Truth on bass and Jem Godfrey of Frost* and far too many chart-topping pop hits to mention on keyboards). The tune’s brevity is key to its place on the album; it opens with a grinding, angular, atonal guitar riff, punctuated insistently by the bass and drums, before launching into a driving groove over which the guitar and keys work their magic, and then it’s done, two-and-a-half minutes later. ‘The Bridge’ clocks in at nearly twelve minutes, which is a respectable length for a prog-rock opus, but almost every other tune would be on the short side for a pop song.
This brevity is on one hand the residue of a sensibility formed in the light of bands like Black Flag, that are as full of creative, inventive ideas as any prog outfit, but that believe in getting them down and getting out as fast as possible; and on the other hand, it represents a refusal to take a cue from most of prog’s long form works, and dissemble the underlying structure. By which I mean that most of those ‘long-form’ compositions are simply short ideas stitched together by transitional materials, with no real thematic continuity or development to them. On Lucid, Stevens is totally honest about the episodic character of his music; the internal structure of his compositions is usually based on a strophic alternation between two or more contrasting sections, which are rarely stated more than a couple of times each; and the album as a whole is a simple sequence of these precisely stated, almost koan-like musical ideas. This does not, I should emphasise, make it any less coherent, or any less a creative whole, than many releases that explicitly declare themselves to be ‘concept albums’. This is a concept album too, but the ideas that give it life are musical ones, not half-baked narrative tropes lifted from science-fiction. The material is very recognisably Matt Stevens material: textures are constructed from layers of simple melodic ostinatos, often in asymmetric or polyrhythmic arrangements, like the 2/4 against 17/8 pattern that drives the title track; and crescendi are reached in grinding, abrasive riffgasms, also often in rhythmically tricksy cyclicities, for example the 10/8 + 10/8 + 10/8 + 14/8 headbanger that opens the appropriately named ‘Unsettled’. While said riffgasms would once have been realised in a frenzy of acoustic guitar strumming, it’s clear that Stevens’ creative concerns and compositional priorities have not changed a great deal; he’s simply finding new ways to explore some basic premises that still have a great deal of life left in them.
What’s really new about the music on Lucid is the sheer variety. Variety of texture, dynamics, mood, weight, intensity, complexity. This must surely owe something to the number of collaborators Stevens has enlisted: Charlie Cawood (of far too many bands to mention, but notably Knifeworld) plays some lovely pipa on ‘The Other Side’, and ‘Coulrophobia‘ is built around an atmospheric vibraphone performance courtesy of Jon Hart (‘bloody hell,’ I hear you say, ‘he really has gone prog, hasn’t he?’); but much of it is just down to him. Two of his old-style looping performances are very pretty finger-picked pieces, of a sort I’ve not previously heard from him, and these are just examples of the many directions in which Stevens is pushing himself as a musician and a composer. It’s not just that he’s increased his dynamic range; it always was a long way from his most contemplative moments to his most intense, although clearly the amount of grungy electric guitar he employs increases that subjective distance, but with Lucid his thoughts and gestures range among so many more dimensions. Stevens’ aesthetic universe is expanding, a process that can be heard clearly through the sequence of his albums, drawn ever on by the hinterland of a very active and erudite musical brain, just as the physical universe is by the inertia of its unseen dark matter. It’s not unusual for musicians to find a groove and stick with it, tweaking rather than transforming their practice from album to album, once they’ve decided what their sound is. The artist that becomes more ambitious as they mature, more inventive, more experimental, that sees every creative achievement as a stepping stone to new, unheard possibilities, is a rare beast. Matt Stevens is a prime example of that species, a musician with so much clarity of vision, and so much commitment to his own creative concerns, that he is probably incapable of sounding anything other than completely unique. There are no contrived absurdities here, no studied avant-gardisms, no aping of stylistic conventions; instead, Stevens is consonant when he needs to be consonant, and atonal when he needs to be atonal. He is poignantly, sweetly delicate when delicacy is called for, and and a marauding storm of mordant savagery when he needs to give it some. He is oblique when his meanings are nuanced, and direct when his creative arguments require summation. In the broadest sense of the term, the sense that is owned by forward-looking jazz musicians, and the political left, and the free education movement, just as much as it is by the adherents of the prog tradition, he is as progressive a musician as you are likely to encounter. Matt Stevens is one of the most fully engaged, artistically courageous recording artists currently active, and this album is his most ambitiously conceived, rigorously realised, and emotionally powerful release to date.