Matt Stevens is a guitarist who records solo under his own name as well as playing with the band, The Fierce And The Dead and electronic duo, Yonks. His previous albums have fused his fluent and eclectic acoustic playing style with looping technology to create some startlingly original, emotive and heavily-layered tunes, occasionally using other instrumentation, but rarely.
This new release, ‘Relic’, sees him venturing into more varied sonic territory. He has always managed to push the envelope when it comes to what his acoustic guitar can actually do, sonically. But, as a solo instrument, that’s always going to be somewhat limited. Relic takes Stevens’ music to new levels, providing the listener with a much more varied palette of sound and rhythm. He’s augmented his guitar with drums, bass, keyboards, processed violin and some top-notch engineering/production by band-mate, Kevin Feazey.
From the opening track, ‘Nightbus‘, it’s obvious that Stevens wants to get away from his previous work in some ways. Whereas his previous release, ‘Ghost’, was bittersweet and decorative in parts; Nightbus eschews the sentiment for an evocative nighttime journey through the streets of London via a driving beat and a slightly menacing melody which brings to mind the music of ubiquitous 60’s soundtracker, John Barry.
The title track, ‘Relic‘, kicks in with biting and rich chordal strumming then veers into Radiohead territory, an influence which Stevens proudly wears on his sleeve without ever falling into pastiche or plagiarism. (The track builds into the most glorious of crescendos.). ‘20 GOTO 10‘ is full of atmosphere from it’s intro of chiming chords and bit-crushed drums. There’s a ‘song’ structure here, which is surprising, given Stevens’ adherence to instrumental releases; but one can imagine a vocal line working over this.
Then, my personal favourite, a moment of frivolity: ‘Up‘. As the title suggests, an upbeat track with playful phrasing, guitar-as-bontempi-organ sounds, low-key backing vocals (yes) and handclap polyrhythms.
There’s much to like about this album, with its mix of knowing reverence for past music, its story-telling, its sonic invention and, of course, Stevens’ impeccable playing. There’s craft here, yes, but there’s also art and sheer entertainment. Stevens threw his fans a curve-ball with this album, it was a gamble, but it’s paid off, revealing a musician with the spirit of a maverick who refuses to stand still creatively. Recommended.