“Expectant waiting: the feeling of looking forward, usually excitedly or eagerly, to something that is going to happen” that is the dictionary definition of anticipation and, ever since I was a small child and started listening to music, I have looked forward to many a new release with anticipation, more with some than others. You know the feeling, the previous album you heard by a particular artist was maybe ground-breaking or, just so darn good that you await the release of their next record eagerly and count down the days until you can get your grubby paws on the CD or, more often nowadays, your hard drive can open up its megabytes to the mp3 download.
The downside to this habit of throwing all my expectant eggs into one metaphorical basket is that, if the new magnum opus turns out to be a turkey then the disappointment can be colossal. It is very rare that this has happened but, the fact that it has can take my excitement down a notch, I begin to temper my enthusiasm and downgrade my anticipation. Well, to be honest my friends, once I heard that Matt Stevens was releasing a new solo album, I have had all on holding myself back, having been a long time admirer of Matt’s brand of instrumental, guitar based prog on both his solo albums and with his admirably manic band The Fierce and the Dead. This promised to be one of the stand-out releases of the year for me and part of a string of releases from impressive British progressive artists. Matt has previously released 3 solo albums, Echo in 2008, Ghost in 2010 and Relic in 2011, his music has been compared with artists as diverse as Radiohead and Robert Fripp.
Matt’s new solo release Lucid sees him joined by a host of guest musicians including drummer Pat Mastelotto (King Crimson), Bass guitarists Lorenzo Feliciati (Naked Truth), Charlie Cawood (Knifeworld) and Kev Feazey, keyboard players Jem Godfrey (Frost*) and Emmett Elvin (Chrome Hoof / Guapo), violinist Chrissie Caulfield (Helicopter Quartet / Crippled Black Phoenix), vibe player Jon Hart and Nicholas Wyatt Duke (Trojan Horse) on Spoken Word. Speaking about his new album Matt states; “Lucid took three years as I really wanted to make this one a significant step up from the previous albums. It’s inspired by a bit of a dark time, but hopefully it’s an uplifting record. I’m so proud of the people who played on it, working with people like Pat Mastelotto on drums from King Crimson and Jem Godfrey from Frost* was amazing but all the players really were outstanding. Stuart Marshall (Fierce And The Dead) and Charlie Cawood (Knifeworld) were the rhythm section for a lot of the tracks. And it was great to have Chrissie back who played violin on the previous records. It’s a record that reflects my love of Jesu and Celtic Frost as much as the Mahavishnu Orchestra and King Crimson or even Peter Gabriel and I’m really proud of it. If you’re not going to take risks and try and do something interesting what’s the point?”
After almost being killed by the anticipation, my luck’s in and I have the had the opportunity to listen to the album many times over in this last week or so, will Lucid be the artistic gem I’m hoping for or the dreaded Turkey? Well, here goes………
I have spoken to Matt a few times as the album has developed and it was obvious that this was something that he had worked very hard on, was very proud of and had put his heart and soul into and, from the opening bars off Oxymoron it is evident that he has produced music that has taken all that has gone before and improved on it in every department. The crushing riff and thunderous drumming take your breath away immediately, when the lead guitar chimes in, it is with an intensity that makes your hair stand on end, it is powerful but exceedingly melodic at the same time. The accompanying bass is highly effective and, add in the violin that tries its hardest to be anything but a violin and, you have something different and sublime.
Flow has a technical feel to it, the intro is almost oriental in its sound with an urgent, staccato note, it picks you up and takes you on one of those journeys where everything is speeded up 3 or 4 times, like a midnight taxi journey through Tokyo. Matt is one of the most respected exponents of looping and shows it to perfection on this track, the repeated guitar structures enveloping you in an experience that is almost cinematic.
Unsettled is a cacophony of sounds concocted by Matt and his rhythm section, it is the first of the tracks on the album that takes on Matt’s ‘The Fierce and the Dead’ persona, rather than his more laid back solo work. The hectic guitar, drums and bass work together to, seemingly, keep you off kilter at all times and not allow you to regain your balance, firing off distorted licks and whole sections that almost jar your nerves. To be honest, it does leave you feeling unsettled but, like the music masochist that I am, I think it really works and, like a sonic assault on your aural receptors, it pulverises you into an extremely happy submission. Like black and white and ying and yang, The Other Side is the light to Unsettled’s dark, a tender and graceful acoustic guitar is joined by Charlie cawood’s pipa, a four stringed Chinese lute, to add grace and serenity to this delightful track. It is playful and thoughtful and leaves you feeling sonically refreshed.
The slightly off key intro to The Ascent is another foray into music from the dark side that, rather than flowing over you, meets you head on and leaves you in no doubt over who is the boss. Some impressively out-there keyboards from Jem Godfrey add the counterpunch to Matt’s edgy guitar work and the whole, grating sound cuts right through you leaving an indelible impression, short but extremely fiery like the musical equivalent of a ghost chilli! Mysterious sounds emanate from your speakers at the start of Coulrophobia, eerie and ghost like, like water dripping from the roof of an underground cavern. I am in love with the brilliant idea of using a vibraphone on this track, it is haunting and, added to the luminescent keyboard sound, gives a distinct impression of the afterlife, Matt’s wraithlike guitar walking you through the spectral scene. This album is proving to be music for the soul and mind, feeding your deepest desires and appealing to your higher consciousness.
Title track, Lucid has an intro like a hyper active clock ticking away, counting down the years you have left, it is urgent but controlled and never hectic, imagine a locomotive from the heydays of steam, a black and white film showing it speeding up the track, wheels turning at maximum velocity and you will have some idea of what’s going through my mind. The fuzzy guitar playing is sleek and funky and brings a stylish track to a neat end. How about a pure acoustic guitar track, all sweetness and light? okay sir, for your delectation we have KEA, I say that with frivolity because this is a track that makes you smile with its dancing guitar note and air of mischief. Matt shows his lighter side on this song, his playing is a delight to hear and leaves me grinning from ear to ear.
Now to one of my favourite songs on the album, the jazz inspired Street and Circus, a work of genius that must leave the legendary Martin Taylor gnashing his teeth and wishing he wrote it. It is as perfect in composition as it is in performance and dances on your earlobes before bestowing you with its aural splendour. The drums are played to perfection, hanging back and adding a little finesse but, it is the superlative guitar playing of Matt Stevens that takes your breath away on this song.
The Bridge is the epic track on the album coming in at over 10 minutes long and taking the listener on a more serious journey. Dark and dangerous at first, a distorted guitar running over a harsh riff and pounding drum beat, Matt has joined all of his excellent guest artists together for this song and, they all take it to the max, delivering a complex and intricate song that really does become a musical odyssey. The delicately tripping guitar note that follows, dances lightly across your psyche, touching your inner being before morphing into an ethereal, gossamer thin acoustic note, apprehensive and dripping with emotion. That compelling riff begins again, imbuing the song with an edge that portentous, almost a warning note. The next part of the track has a hesitant note to it, sound washing over you as you are held in stasis, awaiting the next act of this dramatic song and, what an act it is, a coruscating guitar that takes a note and breaks it into its constituent parts before forming something dark and sinister in a crucible of sound and unleashing it upon you to resonate with your being.
After the majestically loud and dangerous The Bridge, Lucid comes to an end with something quite joyous and endearing, like Matt has found his inner child and turned it into a song, A Boy is an acoustic enchantment, the guitar taking on a life and personality of its own, the looping, twin guitar sound is genius and the whole song salves the soul like musical confession, leaving your conscience feeling totally clear after listening to this exquisite album closer.
The anticipation may have been killing me but, let me tell you, it was most definitely worth the wait. Lucid is every bit as good as I hoped it would be, in fact, it’s even better, one of the UK’s foremost and challenging guitarists has moved the game on to a completely higher level and, in this year that has, already, produced some stand out releases, Matt Stevens has, for me, produced one of the most impressive albums I’ve heard yet.