1. Oxymoron (2:45)
2. Flow (2:09)
3. Unsettled (2:45)
4. The Other Side (3:30)
5. The Ascent (2:31)
6. Coulrophobia (3:24)
7. Lucid (2:46)
8. KEA (2:24)
9. Street and Circus (4:56)
10. The Bridge (11:49)
11. A Boy (2:50)
Matt Stevens – guitars, loops
Stuart Marshall – drums (1, 3, 4, 7, 9, 10)
Pat Mastelotto – drums (5)
Lorenzo Feliciati– bass (5)
Charlie Cawood – bass (1, 3, 4, 10), pipa (4)
Kev Feazey – bass (7), percussion (10), programming (2)
Jem Godfrey – keyboards (4)
Emmett Elvin – keyboards (6)
Chrissie Caulfield – violin (1, 10)
Jon Hart – vibraphone (6)
Nicholas Wyatt Duke – spoken word (10)
In the past few years, London-based guitarist and composer Matt Stevens has become one of the most prolific and intriguing figures on the variegated progressive rock scene. Active both as a solo artist and with his band The Fierce And The Dead, he has also appeared on albums of other notable British outfits, such as Cosmograf and Nine Stones Close. Lucid, his fourth studio album, released on Esoteric Antenna in March 2014, was the result of three years of work, and was developed during what Stevens openly admitted was a dark time in his life.
While committed to the progressive rock cause, and therefore not at all reluctant to be labeled as a prog artist, Stevens is also an omnivorous listener, whose musical interests range from “pronk” icons The Cardiacs to extreme metal by way of King Crimson, Nick Drake and Neil Young. This open-minded attitude is reflected in his music, based on acoustic guitar and live loops – a veritable “guitar orchestra” – which has been performed all over Great Britain.
For a first-time listener, one of the most surprising (and refreshing) aspects of Lucid is that Stevens manages to create energetic, often hard-edged music with an instrument that, in popular imagination, is associated more with folk or singer-songwriters than rock. Enriched by the contribution of guest musicians from some of Britain’s most interesting modern progressive outfits (including his The Fierce and The Dead partners, drummer Stuart Marshall and bassist Kev Feazey, who is also the album’s producer), the album is a tightly composed effort that also allows Stevens to explore new territory, while refining and maturing the style he had already showcased in his previous releases.
With most tracks between two and five minutes (for an overall running time of around 42 minutes), Lucid runs counter to the stereotypical prog trend of long, rambling compositions. Though King Crimson will inevitably come to mind on more than one occasion, Stevens’ manifold influences are brought to bear, and an almost punk attitude emerges, especially in the more upfront pieces such as opener “Oxymoron”, which barges in assertively, blending energy and a quirky sense of melody. The spirit of Fripp’s trailblazing crew is never far, and the participation of drummer Pat Mastelotto on the powerful yet hypnotic “The Ascent” reinforces the connection. On this particular track, Stevens pulls out all the stops, sparring with Mastelotto and renowned bassist Lorenzo Feliciati in a crescendo of intensity only marginally tempered by Jem Godfrey’s keyboards. In a very similar vein, “Unsettled” foregrounds the angular interplay of guitar and drums, then the guitar takes the lead forcefully with an almost howling tone.
Other tracks emphasize the atmospheric component of Stevens’ compositional vein, though never stinting on the aggression whenever necessary. The spacious texture and juxtaposition of gentleness and almost industrial edginess of “Flow” reminded me of Herd of Instinct, as did the subdued, ethnic-tinged “The Other Side”, to which Knifeworld bassist Charlie Cawood contributes the lilting sound of the Chinese pipa. More Eastern suggestions surface in the beautiful yet vaguely ominous “Coulrophobia” (fear of clowns), John Hart’s crystalline vibraphone and Guapo’s Emmett Elvin’s subtle keyboards perfectly complementing Stevens’ chiming guitar.
“Street and Circus”, a slow and evocative duet between Stevens and Stuart Marshall’s measured drums, at times leaving the guitar to emote on its own, provides a fitting introduction to the album’s unexpected pièce de resistance – an almost 12-minute masterpiece of ambiance and shifting moods titled “The Bridge”. Ominous guitar riffs develop into an almost Sabbathian plod, then sustained lead guitar and Chrissie Caulfield’s violin weave an eerie, ethereal atmosphere with a sense of tension lurking beneath the apparent gentleness. Towards the end, Stevens’ guitar surges in a wailing tone, leading to a cinematic ending that, once again, put me in mind of Herd of Instinct’s most ambitious compositions. The album’s wrap-up comes in apparently anticlimactic fashion, with the soothing, melancholy melody of the sparse “A Boy” – a companion piece to the fluid elegance of “KEA”, showcasing Stevens’ skillful use of acoustic loops.
A big step forward in Matt Stevens’ career as a musician, composer and performer, Lucid is a masterful example of instrumental progressive rock with a contemporary attitude and a healthy respect for the genre’s glorious past. Because of his dedication to his craft and fiercely independent spirit, Stevens has become an example to follow for many non-mainstream musicians, and the sound advice laid out in his blog makes essential reading for anyone venturing into the troubled waters of progressive music-making. In any case, Lucid is essential listening for anyone keen to explore innovative approaches to guitar playing, as well as fans of the King Crimson school of prog.