Review: Andre LaFosse – “Do the Math”/”Hard Bargain”

I first became aware of guitarist Andre LaFosse via the newsgroup Looper’s Delight (of which Andre, as I understand it, was a member once). In these circles, Andre was seen as an “elder statesman” for an approach of using (realtime) loops which differs a lot from what most people think of when the hear about loops: using his guitar, guitar amplifier and the Echoplex Digital Pro looper, Andre would really go to the limits of this very powerful box – and sometimes beyond; he’s mentioned for exploiting a bug later turned into a feature in the manual!

His magnum opus in that realm was his album “Normalized” (2003). Since then, there has been a free official bootleg of his performance at The Monkey, New York (which, in comparison to “Normalized”, still uses the same “turntable guitar” approach, but more intersped with catchy melodies), and since then…nothing.

Now this has changed! Recently, Andre announced via his twitter profile not one, but two new albums.

Both of these albums are available on bandcamp as “pay-what-you-want-including-free”; I’ll review both of them in one go.

Both of them have in common LaFosse as the only musician and the guitar as the center of attention. Apart from that, there’s not that much similarity at first sight: while “Hard Bargain” is described as an instrumental rock trio album, “Do the Math” uses (modular, and also normal) synthesizers alongside with the guitar.

What I like…

Now rock trio and modular synths are two very different contexts – yet, if you listen to both albums side-by-side, it becomes immediately clear that it’s by the same musician, and if you’re familiar especially with The Monkey bootleg, also that this musician is LaFosse. Although LaFosse is most famous for things which most people would consider rather odd, he has an uncanny talent for really catchy melodies. Presented together with his very recognizable guitar style, this is immediate recognition value. And those melodies are not only Lafosse-esque, they also work well, and that in any context.

Now LaFosse’s guitar playing has never been an issue of critizism, but still I’d like to mention it again: he has a very nice (and signature) way of sounding on the guitar. Using the guitar/amp combo as something which is more than the sum of its parts, this is an important ingredient on any album which has guitar, but especially so for an instrumental rock album.

Now great guitar playing and catchy melodies do not an album make (much less two of them), but LaFosse also has the talent to craft both of these ingredients into songs. It seems he has made sure that the title tracks are also the best tracks (because, at least for me, those are the highlights of each album). This is especially impressive as “Hard Bargain” is a track which clocks in at a mighty eleven minutes, yet neither achieves this playing time by endless improvised solos (LaFosse is eager to point out that this albums contains no guitar solo in the traditional sense) nor by faking one long track by making it up of several independent sections: Hard Bargain (the track) is a hard-rocking track which just runs a little longer, but doesn’t feel too long for any of its seconds.

As tracks go, my personal number twos on each album are the slow tracks: The Process of Elimination and Balancing Act (the latter described by LaFosse as “the hardest thing I’ve ever done”). We so often find that hard-rocking bands really fail on the slow tracks, which end up being really cheesy soft pop songs with distortion – not so here.

What I don’t like…

Recognition value comes with doing things which are similar – and to my ears, some things appear to be too similar, especially on “Do the Math”: the number of tracks which use some kind of sample-and-hold filter sound is just too big. Furthermore, the “synth” album isn’t that different to the “rock trio” one – some tunes could easily go onto the other album if you replaced a synth with a second guitar.

Now both albums are LaFosse-only (or so it seems looking at the credits). And that means that the parts which are not guitar are not LaFosse at his strongest, nor are the recordings that of a band playing. This especially surfaces on “Hard Bargain” (the album) – now this would really have benefited from an actual trio of “Lafosse plus” letting it fly. While for “Do the Math” it’s acceptable that everything ‘cept the guitar is programmed (it’s synths, after all), the choices in drum sounds do not fit to my ears: essentially, it’s the same drum sound as on the other album.

Finally, it’s audio engineering I’ll go on about: ever since his first “Disruption Theory” album, LaFosse has slowly been rising on the loudness-war-threaded RMS scale: while his first album was still in a very nice “below-K-14” realm, the level has been set higher from release to release, now reaching a most ugly -7dB during some parts of these new albums. There is really no excuse for this. Turn the damn compressor and limiter down!

Summarizing…

As you can see, I’m a little torn here: on one side, we have great melodies, clever compositions, outstanding guitar playing and top-level slow songs. On the other hand, it’s a little repetitive, “Hard Bargain” sounds too “canned” for a proper rock album, and it’s damn too fucking loud!

Fortunately, with that bandcamp offer, there’s not a big decision for you to make, and if there is one, I’ll make it for you:

Head over there and check out both albums! If you’re in a hurry, listen to both albums’ title tracks and the slow tunes (The Process of Elimination, Balancing Act) first.

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