Sunday, February 28, 2010

A tapestry of the old and the new - the guitar of Matt Stevens' "Echo"

The guitar has been around for a long time. For around 3,000 years, in one form or another – and, while it has always been an important and loved accompaniment for singers of almost any genre, culture or skill-level, it is in its role as solo instrument where the most interesting work is happening and where the amazing diversity of this instrument really comes into its own.

Rodrigo y Gabriela were, of course, powerful advocates for the musical vibrancy of the guitar (see 9th February); but so too is Matt Stevens, a London musician and composer who, in his fantastically creative online album, Echo, uses the guitar, and a sampler, to build layers of sound where invention is stacked upon invention in music that bursts open every seam that had once hemmed the guitar in.

The layers of the music are vital here; and there is always so much going on that sometimes, if you let yourself wander off and do something other than listen, you might miss the things that have made this music special. It’s like watching a huge dance, where the steps that the little girl is doing somewhere in the middle of everyone else are just as important as the massive leaps of star who shines in front of the footlights.

Echo is always injecting you with shots of energy, giving the music the feel of inexhaustible life, like when you leap out of bed on a morning that you just somehow know is going to be a good day. The first shot comes with the album’s opener, ‘Burning bandstands’, where strapping chords, spurting out like bullets, detonate into music in which the shards of light left in the explosive aftermath seem to be calling you to join in their dance.

Matt Stevens seems to be able to make his guitar contort itself into whatever shape or form the music asks of it, like with the percussive energy of ‘Airships’, over which an almost pensive, contemplative melody sings, creating music that is both forceful and vulnerable at once; or grumbling and buzzing, just as you would expect a song called ‘Flies in the Basement’ to do.

But Echo isn’t just about adrenalin and fireworks. Listen, for example, to ‘Snow Part 3’, with its sad and fragile melody over slow, bare, bowed string chords, with a sort of Elizabethan ambience, as if, after all the sparkle that has gone before, you are watching another world, sorrowful and cold, through a window and you are reminded that even the brightest, bounciest sparks die out eventually.

The world we leap into with the track that follows, ‘Chasing the Sun’, however, is not the cold snow at all but one where all the vim and vigour of Latin rhythms spring and skip again, but are ultimately underscored by deeper, darker, sustained strings, as if to warn us, it seems, that that other, colder, world is not as far away as we might have thought.

‘Spencer Park’ slogs in with a steady, striding stomp, stopping every now and then to look around the open spaces and to breathe in the fresh air that it has created with its wonderful little trickling phrases that burst out of the pounding beat, like magic. Its partner is ‘West Green’, where those little trickling phrases now broaden into a steady flow, tumbling over huge, spacey, electronic rocks and into creepy, crawly crevices of sound, giving the music its sense of the exotic, which, even with its sure and steady beat, leaves you feeling that it has taken you to a new place, wild and wonderful.

The little phrase has grown to full adulthood in ‘Jubilee’, now strong in its own right and hovering off in its own directions, while the beat that had once given it birth itself now explores new territory, descending into the depths here, morphing into percussive chords there, putting its own unique stamp on this vibrant family of sound, that has now grown up so well.

‘Doll’s House’ brings the album to a close, where the layers of music gather and separate and gather and separate, until we again hear those bullet chords that we had heard at the beginning, now reinforced with what sounds like an orchestra of a thousand guitars, rich and brilliant, waving a kind of fond farewell to you as the music dances off into the distance, leaving you basking in its glow, while not quite letting you forget its shadows.

Echo is a great example of what a creative and talented musician can do by combining enticing music with innovative use of sound, against a backdrop where tradition is something to draw from, but never something to be tied to. It’s music that weaves its own tapestry from old threads and new threads, allowing both to be seen in a refreshingly different way.

Echo can be downloaded on a “pay what you want” basis, from Matt Steven’s website at Believe me – musicians like this are worth whatever support you can give.


  1. Dude - thanks so much for posting this - can I quote you on my website?

  2. Hey Matt .... yes, of course!! Thanks again for that great music.