I don’t like acoustic guitars strumming chords, while further acoustic guitars play unison melodies in intervals. I never have. That’s why the first solo album by guitarist Matt Stevens never grew on me. Released in 2008, Echo in my opinion contains but one great track – “good” in the sense of “free of strumming chords and unison melodies in intervals”.
On Steven’s 2010 solo release, “Ghost”, Stevens does not leave the approach from “Echo” behind, rather expands on it both with regard to instrumentation and musical means. Starting with “Into the Sea”, you find arpegiatted guitar chords, some very subtle percussion (a hand drum and a shaker) and a catchy theme, which is so catchy that you only discover the slightly odd rhythm when you try to clap along.
Another change from the last album, which was acoustic guitar only, becomes evident on “Eleven”. Here, the main solo is performed by an electric guitar with an almost bluesy feel, and contrasted by the countertheme played on a glockenspiel, ending with that very theme atop Stevens’ clever use of a volume pedal to get synthesizer-like sounds out of his acoustic guitar.
There’s tracks like “Lake Man”, which could also find their way to being remixed by artists like Kruder & Dorfmeister – sparse drum machines and a bass synth line form the building grounds for lush acoustic guitar melodies with just a hint of synthesizer strings. Most evident on this track is Stevens’ talent in building a contrasting bridge into his deceptively simple songs – if it weren’t for the lack of vocals, you might call this “singer-songwriter material” at first sight – which with the heavily reverberated desending electric guitar lines gives references to musical examples as far-fetched as Opeth’s “Blackwater Park”. Perhaps it’s not coincidental that Stevens cites acts like “Carcass” as important influences on his art.
There’s still plenty of material reminiscent of Stevens’ “Echo” release – “Big Sky” and “8:19” serving as two examples here. And oddly, even with me having already voiced my distaste for that style of instrumentation and arrangement, in the context of the other tracks, this works surprisingly well. My fafourite among the diversity on this album would be the closing “Moondial”, which is perhaps the best example of Stevens’ art direction on this album, with deceptively simple melodies on acoustic guitar and glockenspiel over arpeggiated chords also on acoustic guitar, after which the track takes a surprising turn into rock band playing in its last parts before the album fades out.
Following the tradition of “Echo”, Matt Stevens also encourages other artists to do remixes of his tracks – on his blog, you find a collection of remixes submitted to him. Also go there to get the multitrack stems for the track “Big Sky” for your personal remix.
I always see it as interesting in which listening contexts an album would work. For Ghost, it’s rather easy to tell which contexts don’t work – and that would be a dance music club. For everything else, this music works beautifully, and that also has to do with Stevens’ approach to really hide the challenging, intricate details below the surface. And so for that, this works well as some unobtrusive listening while working or reading a book, but can be equally seen for attentive listening at home, or on the other hand even as a backdrop in some fancy posh restaurant.
So with that – do I like the album? The short answer is “yes”. The slightly longer one: “much more so than Stevens’ preceding release”. And based on the fact that you’re able to listen to the album in its entirety on Matt’s bandcamp page, and download it as a “pay what you want (including free)” offer, I’d say there’s no time to loose for you. Go there and get ’em!