Review Summary: Redemption through flamenco...
If the past 50-plus years have taught us anything, it's that great music has a habit of spawning from adversity, yet even so the case of Robert McArthur Hubbert ranks among the exceptional. Member of esteemed post-rockers El Hombre Trajeado and a prominent figure in Glasgow's music scene, the guitarist's tenure hit a brick wall when, in 2005, his father was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. This revelation was crushing in itself, but coupled with recognition of his own chronic depression (a disease which, in reality, he'd been burdened with since his mid-teens) made for a true hammer-blow, leaving the 30-year-old grappling for a hobby with which to realign his thoughts. Given his creative nature, it figured that that escapism came through music, and so it was that he sunk into the shadows, locking himself away for hours on end mastering the technical challenges and complex artistry of flamenco guitar.
Blessed with a singular style and outrageous natural talent, it wasn't long before these breathtaking, finger-knotting techniques became second nature, however the longer Hubbert spent alone with his instrument the more his life seemingly unraveled before him. Tragic though it was, his father's eventual passing had at least brought with it an element of warning; something which wasn't so when, less than two years later, his mother succumbed to a sudden brain aneurysm. With his group disbanded and his marriage beginning to crumble, he found himself turning more than ever to the comforts of flamenco, fashioning his own songs and airing them in friend's homes on a "play for food" basis. They hardly atoned for the dire cards he'd been dealt, but as a therapeutic measure they focused his mind and formed an outlet for inner turbulence - a routine so beneficial that, come the summer of 2009, he decided to fashion them into his first solo album.
Released the following March through his own label, Obisano, First & Last
is, in the purest sense, the sound of a man laying himself bare through the redemptive power of music. There are no words (save for those in its sleeve notes detailing the circumstances and themes behind each composition) but there don't need to be; not when in the space of 29 minutes these intimate, delicately plucked compositions convey an emotional baggage that transcends any plain form of description. It might sound all doom and gloom, however instead of wallowing in misery these pieces choose to channel it in a positive manner, reaching for hope even whilst backed into the deepest, darkest corners despair has going. Perhaps the most striking example of this comes in 'Jumphang,' a work of harrowing, numbing beauty directly addressing the events surrounding his mother's death. Split into three sections, the formative pair tell of sheer desolation; depicting the heart-stopping moment he learned of her fate via phone call and the feelings of resignation and powerlessness which inevitably followed. The final act, though, elects not to dwell on that agony, but rather to pursue a degree of closure, grasping for sparks of optimism now that the ordeal has, ultimately come to pass. Gamers may also recognise its title as a reference to Ninja Warrior
; an analogy for overcoming life's obstacles that's strangely apt, and displays a humorous streak even this tribulation failed to compromise.
A serial introvert, Hubbert's reluctance to discuss his demons makes First & Last
's staggering openness all the more remarkable, yet along with passages of deep reflection there are moments when he does seek solace in those around him. 'For Maria,' for instance, was intended as an alternative mixtape for his then wife, bringing forth a wondrous exchange of playing styles, while the buoyant tap of 'Hey There Mr Bone' takes inspiration from the joyous energy of his faithful hound, D Bone (named after the Minutemen's D Boon, in case you were wondering). That opener, more than any which follow, epitomises a will to revel in life's simplicities that's strung through every delicate melody and reverberating bassline the record has to offer, honing its warmth and driving it on in its laudable quest for contentment. Indeed, while the notion of music as medicine has been exercised throughout the history of recorded sound, its hard to recall any who've done so with such superlative class, never mind yielded results so vitally endearing.