Two Lords of Looping

Sly Guitar
It has been a while since I recommended any music here, but there are two musicians I have been listening to a lot recently who both have new albums out and are well worth investigating if you like instrumental music that is varied, exciting and challenging. Both make great use of digital looping to provide lush and interesting soundscapes and accompaniments to their playing – a technique that has been around since the days of tape loops, but which has become much more refined in recent years as digital audio technology has advanced and musicians have defined what is possible with live audio manipulation.

I’ve used loops on occasion in the past and there are some examples on The Lunacy Board’s album. There are several excellent solo artists out there making great use of these devices to produce a band-sized sound from a single instrument, but I’m just going to focus on two who are producing consistently new and interesting music, whilst using the internet to reach their audience in new ways. In fact, I had left this post in ‘draft’ until today, when I visited the Cité de la Musique whilst on holiday in Paris.

Sylvain Choinier
Sylvain Choinier
Along with a wonderful selection of historic, modern and world instruments (as I have blogged about here before), today the ticket price included a short concert by Sylvain Choinier. He was demonstrating the use of effects pedals, including a Roland RC50 (which was until recently their top-of-the-range looper), and ‘prepared’ guitar. Over his short set he built up loops that varied from low and subtle to rhythmic and aggressive, all played on the guitar, some using the pick-ups as microphones, others using a screwdriver jammed between the strings as a warped snare sound. The music he played over these textures varied from spiky jazz-rock to Armenian folk tunes, with a sound that reminded me in parts of Beefheart’s guitarists, Henry Kaiser and John Ellis. So, although I began writing this to point out the following two artists, I would also recommend having a listen to M. Choinier’s music too – I will certainly be looking to get hold of some music from his various projects whilst in Paris.

John Ellis is a guitarist I first came across playing with Peter Hammill (see this video for some great examples of him playing live in Hammill’s K Group) and I’ve been lucky enough to see him perform on stage with both The Stranglers and Judge Smith. He has several solo albums under his belt already, but recently has been performing solo gigs with just guitar and looper pedals and his new album,’Sly Guitar’, includes some examples of the outcome of this approach. Much of the new album can be sampled (to the right here) from Soundcloud and you can also get several free samples of his music at his website online shop.

This album is no Vai/Satriani-type shred fest, but all the better for it (at least to my taste). From the first track, a driving, percussion-led piece with choppy backing chords and synth lead being taken over by soaring EBow guitar (one of his specialities – even his Twitter handle is @KingEBow), via the twangy spanish solo in “Infanta” that decays into an almost uncomfortable hurdy-gurdy-like drone overlaid with a complex doubled melody and layers of EBow, to the insanely danceable “Farud gets Electricity” with its clean rhythm guitars and catchy lead lines, the album sparkles with Ellis’ inventive ideas and his ability to cover a range of styles whilst maintaining his own recognisable identity. Take a listen to “The Bowl Maker of Lhasa” for some really great use of the e-Bow (in tandem with a bottleneck for some crazy sliding lead playing. I love the sound of the EBow and in the hands of someone so experienced in its use, it brings new life to the instrument.

Although the guitar is to the fore in all tracks, much of the backing is electronic in nature, from samples (“Don’t be misled by your Eyes”) to lush synths (“Psycho Cooler” would not be entirely out of place on the new Ultravox album). This also helps to give the disc its own character, as it is more common to find solo guitarists backed with a more conventional rock band format. In short, it has my hearty recommendation!

The second musician I want to bring to your attention may be almost as well known for his views on the constantly changing world of modern music in the digital age as he is for his music. Steve Lawson (@solobasssteve on Twitter) is a solo bass player by name, though he spends a lot of time working collaboratively with a range of other instrumentalists. Solo bass might not seem like something that can maintain attention for a long time, but when you couple Steve’s fretboard skill with his footwork on a looper pedal, something quite magical occurs. You may hear jazz, you may hear funk, you may hear rock stripped of its trimmings and laid bare or you may just drift along with a gentle flow of strange ambient sounds. Steve also makes use of the EBow to create slow atmospheric pads, as well as slides, scrapes and harmonics that flavour the sounds to such a degree that it is easy to forget you’re only listening to one man and a bass guitar.

His latest endeavour is a massive undertaking – releasing all ten live improvised shows he recently recorded with multi-instrumentalist Daniel Berkman (he’s currently just past the 1/2 way mark). The overall project is titled “FingerPainting” and it is possible to buy some of the albums individually or the whole tour as a single package (as I have done on USB stick). As he uses Bandcamp for all his releases and is very positive about sharing his music and engaging new listeners, you can listen to the whole album before deciding on buying it. The music is a delightful mix as the two improvisors bounce ideas off each other. The first track, for example, starts as a very understated bass solo, but soon builds into a soaring lead-guitar-like solo with full percussive backing. This is followed by a slowly shifting set of drones in “Towards the Sun” that turn into a glitching backing that acts as a backdrop for the solo bass to skip through in delicate steps. “Reunion” adds a vocalist (Artemis) into the proceedings, this time adding an eastern flavour to an otherwise funky backing provided by bass and percussion. Every track on this album brings its own blend of instrumentation and ideas to you ears in a way that always just seems to fit, even when things might otherwise be expected to clash.

Please take the time to visit Steve’s website. He has some very lucid thoughts on making music work in the current environment that are often equally applicable to writers and visual artists, in addition to all his diverse musical projects. If you like your music with vocals, have a listen to his albums with Lobelia – as a couple their different styles come together and work very well – there are some cover versions you might recognise if you prefer to begin from safer waters. We even came down the aisle to Steve’s music at our wedding!