Reinvention & Passion
It�s not often that a review is titled; after all, there isn't need for a title when you know what to expect. But how does one go about trying to capture the essence of a complex and boundlessly beautiful piece of artistry? To convey brilliance, emotion and technicality without losing some meaning in the process? Sometimes no amount of prose is adequate enough to do the job and simplicity, in this case, is the key. It's a process that has been perfected many times over by some of today�s most acclaimed new age guitarists - there's Michael Hedges, whoseBreakfast In The Field
and Aerial Boundaries
sought to reinvent and radicalize the steel string acoustic, with two handed tapping and numerous percussive elements, Leo Kottke, the father of new age acoustic instrumentals and even John Mayer
, who has brought glimpses of acoustic virtuosity into the pop limelight.
With this framework in mind, I�ll begin by saying that Justin King's Le Bleu
, named after the street where he grew up in as a child, is a majestic and unparalleled piece of work, a beautiful embodiment of complex simplicity. Despite being somewhat of a contradiction in terms, a listen though Le Bleu will wash away any doubts as to its achievability. It is, and done in a way that no review can do it proper justice. But ill try - To get a grasp on any album is to take a look at its influences. Surprisingly, the self-taught guitarist has declined ever having heard the work of Michael Hedges or Leo Kottke, despite the obvious similarities. Instead our list comprises of Nirvana, Radiohead, Sigur Ros and Bjork. Well that doesn�t help. The linear notes of this CD however, are much more insightful:
These compositions, most of which were created traveling in Europe, Ireland, and Britain, but many were composed at my home in Pacific Northwest America. This CD is greatly inspired by the different types of music I was exposed to while traveling. However, this is really not world music, I see it more as my impression or interpretation of various musical traditions. I think in some ways I had set out to make a world music album, what I realized in the end was that I was not playing traditional music at all, but a mixture of what I naturally play and the cultural influences of where I'd been.
And what he says holds true. Le Bleu is a unique blend of Flamenco, Jazz, Classical, Celtic, African and Rock together with a myriad of techniques � two handed tapping (revolving around unique staggered chord structures and single tapped notes), fingerstyle, frenzied strumming, enveloping harmonics, slap-and-pop, hammered chord ostinatos complex body percussion, and some which I simply can't name - the scope and virtuosity of this project is a true reflection of Justin�s dizzying acoustic wizardry. At this point though, I'm obligated to emphasize that this is no useless piece of technical wankery. Each delicate song on Le Bleu has its own character and splendor which manages to hold its own without becoming too entrenched with technicality - a problem faced by so many solo instrumental records.
That said however, Justin is a self-proclaimed tone freak. Just take a look at the range of guitars featured on this album: double neck (Acoustic!), seven string, flamenco, slide and standards. So we know the influences, the style, the techniques and even the guitars. Naturally, the next place to look is the music itself - opening with the aptly named taps
(10 points for guessing why), then into the flamenco-esque Seville
you know you're on to something that's so incredibly unique and amazing. Incidentally, both songs feature some stunning tabla work as well. Continuing deeper into Le Bleu, we get a sense of the true depth of this project as well - From his cover of Amazing Grace
, which is, by the way, one of the most unique and brilliant covers of the song to date, to the jumpy percussive mood of Knock On Wood
, featuring an entire pallet of unique techniques which I'd go so far to say have never been used before, and the beautiful and ambient Ashes
, which shows Justins great voice (reminiscent of Jeff Buckley
Another stand out song here is the groovin' Phunkdified
, which captures the extent of the cross-genre influences of Le Bleu. Easing itself into you head with some muffled 'ta-ba-ta-tish' beat, it lurches straight into a funky mix of bass-style string pops and taps together with that oh-so-unique lightning fast strumming thrown in. Tapping runs abound with a great sense of rhythm and body-slapping all round. Truly a highlight of this album.
The mood this album creates is just as unique as the music contained within it as well. I've always been a fan of beautiful ambient music, and the wonderful ambient passages that are found in and amongst the oozing harmony and melody give Le Bleu an airy, flowing Eastern European country side sorta feel. All of this is amplified by the great resonating tone the King gets out of his guitars - Doolin guitars built Justin a custom made double headed acoustic that could handle about 340lbs of string tension � f'ucking insane! Not only is the music great, but so is the stuff he makes it with.
So what to rate it? In the course of writing this, a massive debate has been raging inside my head. Le Bleu, simply put, is a masterpiece of varied elements and virtuosic guitar playing that is unparalleled within the realm of acoustic guitars. This truly is a reinvention of the vocabulary of the steel string, played with a passion that makes this record such a great listen. But it isn't for everybody. For all its intricacies and beauty, not everyone can appreciate what can be very easily be mistaken for background music. In the end however, just as some may write off death metal or classical music for sounding all the same, the argument just doesn't hold. A true, classic� record is hard to come by, but this is one of them, belonging in the upper echelons of the musical territory.
Note: This album was recorded entirely in DADGAD.