Solo Guitar by Alan Sparhawk (Review)

The result is a twisted, screaming mass of feedback along the lines of David Pearce and Richard Walker’s finest moments.
Solo Guitar, Alan Sparhawk

My friends used to make fun of me whenever we started talking about the music of Low, because I would inevitably tell the same story over and over again. It was the story of the first time I saw them in concert, shortly after I had discovered their music. The show was at Omaha’s Cog Factory, a sketchy little speakeasy-esque joint that was something of a mainstay in Omaha’s alt/underground scene. Until it was shut down for various infractions several years ago, that is.

It was as nondescript and barren as you could get — concrete floors, a small stage with (maybe) some old PA equipment, stark fluorescent lighting, and thousands of posters covering the walls. Oh, and no temperature control to speak of. Which made the place absolutely frigid on that particular winter evening.

There were less than 25 people at the show, and about half of them left after the opening band (obviously, this took place before Low became “big” in certain circles). Those of us who stayed stood there, shivering and watching our breath while Low stood there on the small stage, heads bowed and slightly swaying while delivering one of the most amazing concerts I’ve ever seen.

There was something almost pure and intimate about that evening. The freezing venue, the simple yet overwhelming music (this was around the time they released the stark The Curtain Hits The Cast), the small crowd, the absolute silence between songs — it all resulted in one of the most reverent shows I’ve experienced.

There were two definite highlights from that show. One was “If You Were Born Today,” which, if you’ve heard it, you know is an exceedingly moving Christmas song. The other was a performance of “Do You Know How To Waltz?,” the 14-minute drone piece from The Curtain Hits The Cast. I’ve never seen Low perform that song since, but that night, they stretched it well past 14 minutes, creating a wall of sound that left my friends and I absolutely floored. It’s one of their finest achievements, a perfect example of Low’s ability to control and transform even the simplest sounds into something vast and expansive.

Solo Guitar finds Alan Sparhawk delving into the same drone-y, atmospheric territory contained within “Do You Know How To Waltz?.” Or at least, the first (and best) half of the album does. The bulk of this first half is taken up by two songs; “Sagrado Corazon De Jesu (Second Attempt)” and “How A Freighter Comes Into The Harbor,” and together, they account for over 30 minutes of feedback-drenched tones, drones, and riffing. Which, if not your cup of tea, you might as well stop reading now.

“Sagrado…,” which clocks in at just under 14 minutes, has a vaguely middle-eastern sound to it, as Sparhawk improvises and feels his way through various scales and riffs. At times, it comes a little close to “shred” territory, as if Sparhawk took some time to channel his secret Steve Vai fascination. His guitar shrieks and wails, as if he’s not so much playing as ripping out the notes.

However, the song moves at a very deliberate, even solemn pace, with stretches of silence where one can imagine Sparhawk contemplating, even meditating about the flurry of notes he’s about to unleash; meanwhile, in the distance, the amps hum and crackle with feedback and anticipation. And of course, massive drones slowly circle around and throughout, creating a hypnotic and foreboding air that ultimately puts even the most explosive of Sparhawk’s six-string pyrotechnics in perspective.

“How A Freighter Comes Into The Harbor” is an even stronger track, mainly because it’s much more subdued. The song begins with single notes and simple chords ringing out and quickly disappearing, like foghorns ringing out in middle of the night and quickly muffled by the mist. Piece by piece, Sparhawk begins slowly building the song, laying the elements of the tense, ringing drone that will ultimately serve as the song’s foundation. It’s fascinating to look past what Sparhawk is doing at times, and focus only on what’s taking place in the background. You can practically hear the amps building up steam until the high, keening central drone finally emerges.

It’s difficult to call the piece “beautiful,” as strong and arresting as it may be, due to the strong sense of mourning and foreboding that manifests itself early on and never subsides. In keeping with the title’s nautical theme, it plays out like a elegy for drowned sailors, or perhaps an attempt to convey the sense of despair and loss as the waters closed in over their heads. And that high, keening drone, as it becomes more layered and intense, sounds increasingly like the cries of ghosts and banshees from across a godforsaken black sea.

Once the dronework gets going, it’s hard to imagine that Sparhawk has any control over it whatsoever. Notes and guitar strums occasionally ring out, as do miscellaneous reverberations, but they are either quickly silenced by the drones, or quickly possessed and subsumed by them. In the song’s final moments, the drones attain critical mass, collapsing in on themselves (and Sparhawk’s amps) like reefs tearing through a ship’s hull. The result is a twisted, screaming mass of feedback along the lines of David Pearce and Richard Walker’s finest moments.

“How the weather hits the freighter…” implies the worst sort of storms you encounter in the open water, with huge swells of sound slamming into the listener from all sides. Unfortunately, at just under two minutes, it never has time to develop into anything else. And thus begins the album’s second half, which is considerably patchier. The last five songs are mere sketches, if even that. They either clock in under a minute, or just rumble along with no time to development any interesting sounds that may appear. Rather, they go nowhere — but make a lot of godawful noise while doing it.

Case in point: “How The Engine Room Sounds,” which, with Alan’s rumbling guitar, crackling feedback, and wordless, noise-soaked screams (which somehow made it over here from a Black-Eyed Snakes record), probably does sound like an engine room. But that doesn’t mean it’s at all interesting to listen to.

Solo Guitar will probably not appeal to most folks who are Low fans. If you’re a fan of songs such as “Over The Ocean,” “Shame,” “Dinosaur Act,” “Canada,” “California,” “Starfire,” etc., you’ll probably find this stuff a little too out there for your sensibilities. Even longtime fans who pick this up as a matter of due course will probably find themselves put off by Solo Guitar’s second, arguably weaker half.

But Low have always had an experimental side to them, and have never been afraid of playing with more obtuse, less accessible sounds on recordings such as The Curtain Hits The Cast, Songs For A Dead Pilot, and even Trust. If you’re enamored with that particular side of Low, than there are certainly parts of Solo Guitar that you’ll find fascinating and challenging, even if they leave your ears ringing afterwards.

Many folks enjoyed the more rock-oriented sound that Low played with on The Great Destroyer. But Low’s earlier material, which found them dabbling in these darker, more drone-oriented moments, are what solidified that minimalist aesthetic of their’s in the first place, and are what arguably made them into the band they are today.

Sparhawk’s guitar explorations, as obtuse and patchy as they are from time to time, do contain hints of those earlier moments of beautiful, difficult sound (such as “Do You Know How To Waltz?”) And if these more challenging sounds do manage to somehow find their way into Low’s future recordings, where they are polished and refined by Low’s minimalist aeshetic, than I certainly won’t mind. I can’t think of a band that I want to see doing 15-minute noise/drone excursions more than this particular Minnesota trio.

Read more reviews of Alan Sparhawk.