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(49.29, Musea & Poseidon Records)
TRACK LIST: 1. Baba Eva 6.07 2. Mango 6.19 3. Ryan’s Dance 1.30 4. From Over the Fence 4.53 5. Mercedes 4.51 6. No Really 6.42 7. Jai Ya 4.37 8. Ceret 5.39 9. Song for Piyarat 7.39 10. Stephanie 3.12 LINEUP: Glenn Cannon – acoustic steel string guitar Nick Freer – acoustic nylon string guitar Gavin Pearce – bass Ryan Menezes – drums With: Michael Carmona – percussion Anthony Schulz – piano; accordion (2, 3, 4, 8, 10) Frank Gambale – guitar (1, 7) Eva Alwora – vocals (1)
Prolusion. AVATAR is an Australian band set up by guitarists Glenn Cannon and Nick Freer. “Hands” is their debut album, featuring renowned Australian guitarist Frank Gambale (aka the ‘Thunder from Down Under’) as a guest on two tracks.
Analysis. As I have stated on other occasions, albums such as “Hands” are not easy to review for a non-musician. Even someone who, like me, has been listening to many different kinds of music since childhood cannot really do justice to an album with a very high quotient of technical skill such as this one. However, what I call the ‘impressionistic’ (as opposed to technically informed) approach can provide readers with some useful insights into the music contained within the CD. “Hands” is doubtlessly a classy effort from a group of experienced musicians influenced by such diverse genres as Latin music, flamenco and the inevitable jazz/fusion. Everything on it sounds elegant and understated, miles away from the pointless self-indulgence of comparable efforts by electric guitarists. On the other hand, it is also the kind of record that can easily turn into ‘wallpaper music’ for those who are not into the technical aspects of the compositions. Sometimes, when listening to “Hands”, I could not help wishing for some more ‘bite’ – a stronger, more assertive drum beat, a more distinctly audible bass line, perhaps even a sprinkling of keyboards – that would inject some extra energy into the music. A distinctive presence on five out of the ten tracks is an instrument generally associated with various folk music traditions – the piano accordion. Not surprisingly, those five tracks show a strong influence from tango, a musical genre that is very rarely (if ever) mentioned in the same breath as rock in any of its incarnations. Mango is the track that shows this influence at its strongest (its very title is a pun – a sort of ‘mangled tango’, seen as it has different time signatures from the original dance), especially in the muted, atmospheric bridge connecting two magnificent guitar solos, the first by Frank Gambale. The accordion plays the main role in the somber, mournful From Over the Fence (inspired by a childhood memory of guitarist Nick Freer), a deeply emotional number that can bring to mind some of legendary Argentinean composer Astor Piazzolla’s more sedate pieces. Not unusually for a wholly instrumental album, each of the tracks has its own story. Album closer, the atmospheric, melancholy Stephanie, tells the tale of two lovers torn between two different continents and cultures; while Mercedes, in turns lively and lyrical, with some noteworthy ‘shredding’ and an interestingly jagged drum pattern in its second half, is dedicated to the main female character in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. The sprightly, upbeat Ryan’s Dance is instead a tribute to drummer Ryan Menezes’ skill with percussion instruments, and opener Baba Eva (the only number to feature vocals, albeit briefly) explores Latin and African influences in its soothing yet intriguing mid-tempo. The album’s manageable length is definitely another bonus point for “Hands” – ten minutes longer, and it would have overstayed its welcome. Albums of this nature benefit from relatively short running times, as instrumental music can be prone to getting out of hand and turning into a shapeless mess. Here, instead, the tracks are nicely self-contained, and the longest of them – the 7-minute-plus Song for Piyarat – is basically a long dialogue between the two guitars, with a crisp, tasteful backdrop of percussion and bass, and a slightly livelier pace in the second half. In spite of their obvious technical proficiency, the four members of Avatar and their guests know the meaning of restraint – a welcome change of pace from the almost 80-minute sprawls that many ‘conventional’ prog bands seem to churn out with alarming frequency.
Conclusion. A stylish, finely-crafted album, “Hands” is obviously targeted at an audience of guitarists (especially those of the acoustic persuasion), as well as those with a keen interest in world music in general. The unusual tango influences add interest to a very well-executed offering, showing an approach that is the polar opposite of the soulless shred-fests too often associated with guitar-based albums. On the other hand, it is also undeniably a niche production, which fans of traditional, lushly arranged progressive rock may find somewhat one-dimensional.
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