1. Prelude (1:35)
2. Ruhkukah (5:32)
3. Low Levels, High Stakes (9:03)
4. Hard Hat Area (6:03)
5. Tullio (5:59)
6. House of Mirrors (7:44)
7. Postlude (5:28)
Allan Holdsworth – guitar, SynthAxe
Steve Hunt – keyboards
Gary Husband – drums
Skúli Sverrisson – bass guitar
1. Countdown (3:09)
2. Nuages (5:40)
3. How Deep Is the Ocean (5:29)
4. Isotope (5:41)
5. None Too Soon Pt. 1 / Interlude / None Too Soon Pt. 2 (7:42)
6. Norwegian Wood (5:55)
7. Very Early (7:40)
8. San Marcos (3:22)
9. Inner Urge (6:15)
Gordon Beck – digital piano, keyboards
Kirk Covington – drums
Allan Holdsworth – guitar, SynthAxe
Gary Willis – bass guitar
Yorkshire-born guitarist Allan Holsworth needs no introduction for progressive rock lovers of every persuasion. Before Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, John Petrucci and their ilk’s dazzling, faster-than-the-speed-of-light skills on the six strings gained worldwide success, Holdsworth had already attained legendary status for his work both as a solo artist and with the likes of Gong, Soft Machine, Jean-Luc Ponty and UK. Though the albums released in his own name are in the minority if compared to the sheer number of his collaborations, over the years they have become almost objects of cult in the community of jazz-fusion fans
Though I was familiar with Holdsworth’s work with bands such as UK and Gong, I had not yet got round to exploring his solo output. Holdsworth’s reputation as the quintessential “musicians’ musician” may cause his work to be somewhat daunting for those who, like myself, have never touched a musical instrument in their lives. However, even laypersons can derive a lot of enjoyment from listening to music of such outstanding level, although the nature of our comments will necessarily be “impressionistic”, so to speak, and probably even more so than in other occasions – as we will be unable to touch on any of the technical details essential for any practicing six-stringer.
Hard Hat Area and None Too Soon belong to the stage of Holdsworth’s full maturity as a musician and composer, as well as a pioneer of the iconic SynthAxe. Released only three years apart (respectively in 1993 and 1996), they differ quite noticeably in terms of style and lineup. Both albums were out of print for a number of years before Leonardo Pavkovic of MoonJune Records (who is a personal friend of Holdsworth’s as well as fan of his music) took it upon himself to have them remastered and reissued – complete with exhaustive liner notes retracing their history, courtesy of Guitar Player magazine associate editor Barry Cleveland (also a fine musician in his own right). The distinctive elements of both albums are lovingly brought to the fore, with excellent sound quality that allows the listeners to partake of the seamless instrumental interplay without feeling overwhelmed by thousands of notes played at the speed of light.
As Cleveland points out, Holdsworth’s eight solo album, Hard Hat Area, is a logical extension of the guitarist’s previous efforts. It also marks the first time that he recorded an album in the studio with his touring band (comprising drummer Gary Husband, keyboardist Steve Hunt and Icelandic bassist Skúli Sverrisson), instead of recording each track on his own and then adding the other instruments. Not surprisingly, the result are 41 minutes of music that are astonishingly proficient from a technical point of view, yet also warm and fluid, showcasing Holdsworth’s trademark style without detracting from the other players’ outstanding skills. Indeed, in spite of the sky-high level of proficiency involved, the listener never gets the impression that the musicians are showing off – unlike much of the output of modern “guitar legends”. The music possesses that easy, natural flow that can be so hard to achieve, and the crystalline sound quality emphasizes the sleek, effortless nature of the interaction between the various instruments.
The album, conceived in near-symphonic fashion with a “Prelude” and a “Postlude”, is laid-back, at times even lyrical in mood. In the almost 10-minute “Low Levels, High Stakes”, Holdsworth’s guitar and SynthAxe take on a calm, meditative tone, reflected by Hunt’s lovely rippling piano and Husband’s muted yet stunning drum work. Elegant and full of melody, the textbook-perfect fusion of “Ruhkukah” proves once again that fast playing does not have to equal soulless shredding. The title-track, on the other hand, introduces some harsh, industrial elements through mechanical sound effects and a sharper, metallic guitar tone; The atmospheric quality of “Postlude”, enhanced by ethereal keyboard washes, allows Skúli Sverrisson’s splendidly understated bass to step into the limelight, while the SynthAxe engages in a sort of “duel” with the drums, emphasizing the almost uncanny chemistry between Holdsworth and Husband.
Even if released less than three years after Hard Hat Area, None Too Soon is quite a different beast – featuring a completely new band (including Holdsworth’s longtime friend and collaborator, the late pianist Gordon Beck) and a tracklist largely consisting of covers of jazz classics by revered composers such as Bill Evans, Irving Berlin and John Coltrane. While Hard Hat Area is a top-notch example of fusion, None Too Soon treads into traditional jazz territory, though the pervasive presence of the SynthAxe pushes it firmly into a contemporary context that might alienate hardcore purists. Gary Willis and Kirk Covington of US jazz-fusion outfit Tribal Tech provide an impeccable rhythm backdrop, often understated, occasionally stepping into the limelight. However, the real protagonist of the album – in some ways even more so than Holdsworth – is Gordon Beck’s fluid, scintillating piano, which complements Holdsworth’s playing with the effortless ease born of a long partnership.
Clocking in at around 51 minutes, the album features 9 tracks, two of which are Beck’s own compositions – the three-part title-track, with its almost lazy, relaxed mood, and the brisk, energetic “San Marcos”. The jazz novice will probably be unfamiliar with most of the tracks, except for The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” – here almost unrecognizable, with a dazzling, piano-led central section bookended by the well-known, Indian-tinged tune. An understated, atmospheric rendition of Django Reinhardt’s “Nuages”, with Beck’s magnificent piano complementing Holdsworth’s exertions, and Bill Evans’ elegant, romantic “Very Early”, which sees Willis’ bass emerge discreetly, are also among the undisputed highlights of a very solid album.
Needless to say, both albums are essential listening for any self-respecting fan of jazz-rock/fusion, as well as for guitarists who want to learn how to effectively combine speed and technical proficiency with melody and emotion. They also offer an invaluable introduction to Holdsworth’s solo output, as well as a genuinely enjoyable listening experience for those non-musicians who love great music. Kudos to Leonardo Pavkovic for having rescued these excellent albums from oblivion.