“Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.” – Frederic Chopin
I am a huge music fan, that is a given, and I like a cornucopia of differing musical styles and genres. In the main, I listen to hard rock, metal and progressive music. That is what fills my musical reservoirs and what reacts best with my aural receptors. However, that is not exclusive, it holds no sway over me and, from time to time I will listen to blues, jazz and the great pop artists from the 80’s. Whichever way you look at it, I am often listening to music that is loud and complicated, tries to fit a million notes in a space way to small for them and that continually tries to re-invent itself.
I am only human and, can only take so much before I can become overloaded and need to reboot, you know, switch me off at the mains, leave me for 30 seconds and then turn me back on again, all restored to factory settings. The medium that works best to achieve this transformation is simplicity, pare everything back to basics, give me something acoustic and straightforward and I can return back to the fast paced world of multiple notes, loud music and heavy voltage with a clear mind and a light step.
I wonder if John Bassett had this in mind when he decided to take a break from his day job as the front man of space/psychedelic/progressive rock band, KingBathmat and produce his first solo, acoustic release for our delectation.
John Bassett is an English multi-instrumentalist, singer songwriter and producer from Hastings, East Sussex. Primarily known for writing the music and, producing the critically acclaimed albums by Progressive Rock act “KingBathmat”. 2014 sees Bassett releasing his debut solo album, an album on which he exploits the songwriting skills and production techniques he has acquired over the last ten years to their full potential and plays all the instruments apart from the drums where he is ably assistd by Nathan A. Summers. UNEARTH is a darkly lush collection of 10 finely crafted acoustic songs that inhabit a melancholic progressive dreamscape. The emotive songs of “Unearth” encompass and depict the dark substratum of modern life. Social engineering, existential contemplation, survivalism, childhood trauma, Love & Despair, and everything inbetween are covered and flow out through lyrics that are fused with an uncanny knack for melody. UNEARTH combines elements of Progressive Rock & Psychedelic Folk within the structures of classic songwriting. Or so the press pack says, time for yours truly to have a listen and recount back to you folks my take on this release.
First track, and first single release is Stay Away From the Dark and it begins with a melancholy piano note that almost echoes and grips you immediately, the acoustic guitar chimes in, gentle and lulling and then John Bassett’s effortless vocal overlays everything else with a pensive and wistful timbre, the distinctive edge that Bassett has to his vocal delivery will be recognisable to any KingBathmat fans out there but, he proves he has many a new string to his bow here, especially on the beautifully delivered chorus. There is a simple but effective solo which adheres to the ‘taking it back to basics’ attitude of the whole record. Survival Rate carries on in a similar vein, gently strummed acoustic guitar and sublime keyboards providing the foundation upon which John Bassett can build up the layers of another contemplative song. His voice has that pleading edge to it, this time backed by a keyboard note that has sepia tinged hints of the 70’s hanging all over it. The track is delivered at a deliberate pace allowing the music and words to sink in rather than carrying you away with them, becoming thoughtful and sombre, an antidote to the rush hour world we live in.
The jaunty paced intro to Nothing Sacred is very folk-inspired, like a laid back version of Mumford & Sons or Seth Lakeman taken back a notch and, it is very catchy. The drums are much more involved this time and the carnival like keyboard runs right through the centre of the track. John’s vocal is a tad more persistent on this song and he sings the chorus with a harder edge than on the previous tracks and a fine chorus it is too, it leaves me in mind of a sea shanty with that repeated rhythm and clever drumming although, perhaps simpler than what has gone before. Title track Unearth has an aura that is deep and meaningful, the track is back to basics with just a looped guitar and docile keyboard providing accompaniment. The vocal is delivered in a more dominant fashion, more insistent and commanding and it works exceedingly well, providing a stand out moment on the album for me, the chorus is delivered almost like a revelation and the way the track runs out just leaves you wanting more.
John Bassett returns to his pensive best on Pantomime, the vocals all heartfelt and soulful, the guitar and keyboards placid and tender and first. There is then a lift in the vibe of the song with a cool keyboard note that shouts out 70’s prog at me and a faster paced guitar and it is the contrast in these two styles that provides the substance to the song, the drums adding additional gloss. A smooth guitar break in the middle of the song is well worked and precise but, for me, it is that playful, ululating keyboard note that is the highlight of the song. Now to a rare instrumental (not my words, Mr Bassett himself!) and another highlight of this increasingly impressive album, Kylerhea is on the Isle of Skye and is place close to John’s heart which is plainly evident from the joyous composition and delivery of this track, a man at one with his music. The guitar playing is a work of art, almost imbued with self-awareness as it skips along dragging you wilfully in its wake, the drums are judged to perfection and the keyboard adds a silky layer to the whole track. I’d put it up there with the Allman Brothers’ ‘Jessica’ as one of the best instrumentals I’ve heard, not sure John would want to be known for a TV theme though.
Tv is God is a bit more mainstream than the other tracks, the guitar, slightly off key and jarring at times as if to awake you from your reverie, has a sound that could have come from Duane Eddy. The song feels almost like a harder edged folk song, eliciting a message we should all hear, more serious and sensitive than the other tracks and, whilst it is still a great track, doesn’t grab me like the rest of the album does. Who doesn’t like the sound of birdsong and, on Keep Dear it is used to engender a feeling of peace, leaving you calm and mellow as the song begins. The guitar is laid back and tender and John’s voice is full of warmth and ennui, there is a definite feel good factor to this song and it smacks of sunny days spent in the arms of the one you love, I find myself almost hypnotised and in a state of serene grace, perhaps this track should be used in anger management, you can’t help but feel chilled out and relaxed, genius!
The longest song on the album Something That’s More Worthwhile is, I suppose, the acoustic prog epic of the album, if that makes sense, it feels like it wants to be taken seriously and, to me, is the track that has the most of John’s KingBathmat persona invested in it and, almost feels like it could be an acoustic version of a KingBathmat track. Thought provoking and intelligent in construction but cleverly simplistic in execution with minimal instruments and John’s extremely emotive voice being all that is required to produce a song that burrows into your sub-conscious and remains there, unbidden, asking awkward questions that you never have the answer to. The solo towards the end of the track is minimal yet dominant, following the ethos of the rest of the song and combines with the rest of the instruments to produce a dynamic ending to this contemplative track. Birdsong ushers in the final song, Comedian and the introspective guitar and sparse piano note give a feeling of something pared right back to basics. The vocal delivery is, once again, key to the impact that the song has on the listener and, to me, everything is not sweetness and light on this track and, whilst it appears soft and reflective, there is a darkness hiding in the shadows, just out of sight leaving a sense of fragility and brittleness.
Right, let’s get one thing clear, I am a big Kingbathmat fan so, this review was always going to have a tinge of fanboism to it but, I have tried extremely hard to be as objective as I can, only you lot will be able to tell me if that objectivism runs through the review or not. I have enjoyed this album from the first listen, the depth of feeling that comes across is immense and, it is obvious that John Bassett has invested a lot of himself in this solo release. It is a shining beacon of simplicity in an over-complicated world and an antidote to the ponderous, heavy and dull music that can clog up our airwaves in this industrial age. I will tip a nod to the master Leonardo Da Vinci and finish with one of his quotes, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”.