2012-10-26

Music As Art

The genre of music that is today known as "jazz/fusion" became an insufferable joke forty years ago. Today, it is has about as much cultural relevance as the joke, "Why did the chicken cross the road...?" In other words, it's not even funny anymore. Like the chicken joke, it has become a phrase invoked to indicate that one is joking.

The same is true of the Shrapnel Records record label. It is a label that was once well-known to those of us who, in our teens, scoured the back pages of guitar magazines to discover the next unknown schmo who could do eight-finger tapping or play alternate-picking solos at 370 beats per minute or whatever. It was home to many "shred" guitarists who once made a good living by playing technically athletic guitar solos that seem today more like scale exercises or studies of Baroque harmonic rules. The musical merit of such work was called into question a generation or two ago, and certainly failed to win the PR battle of the grunge ascension of the early 1990s.

The above two facts mean that jazz/fusion and Shrapnel Records are both unlikely places to find truly inspiring, and above all genuinely artistic music. Every generalization, however, comes with such a profound counter-example as to negate the whole thing.

Greg Howe
So it is with Greg Howe, a guitarist who spent the first half of the 1980s playing pop music covers in the Pennsylvania club scene with his brother. Howe was such a remarkable guitarist, however, that his pyrotechnics landed him a contract with Shrapnel Records. That contract resulted in the release of his first solo album in the twilight years of the 80s metal heyday, 1988.

Owing to Howe's absolutely remarkable technical proficiency, that solo album became a major success, and Howe released two additional pop metal albums - both featuring his brother on vocals - on the Shrapnel label, under the band name "Howe II." (How-to. Get it? Get it?) Recall that this was during a time in musical history when everyone was looking for the next "Eddie Van Halen," and so bands were popping up which, like Van Halen, were named after the last name of their most prominent member. A few additional examples: Winger, Dokken, L.A. Guns, and so on. Even Steve Vai got in on the action, forming the one-album super-group "Vai" with Terry Bozzio, Devin Townsend, and T.M. Stevens.

The music produced by Greg Howe during this time fit well into the overall Shrapnel Records vibe. The late 80s were an 80s-metal party. Everyone was doing it, much the same as everyone is doing the same stupid auto-tuned singer-songwriter stuff today (think Lady Antebellum or Goyte), or the same stupid drum-machine r&b records today (think Lady Gaga or Ke$ha). It was what it was. If you're a musician and X sells, why not write X? And if X seems to align well with where you're going artistically, what's wrong with that?

Well, two things are wrong with that.

The first is that the 1980s did not last forever, and when they came to an end, they crashed hard. After 1991, no one wanted anything to do with artists on Shrapnel Records anymore. No one cared about neo-classical guitar exercises.

The second is that artists of Greg Howe's caliber cannot be confined by such limitations, even if they try. This could not have become more obvious as when Howe released his 1993 landmark album Introspection.

Introspection was a shock, because nothing like it had ever existed before. Try to remember what it was like in the early 90s. At the time, if you were a good guitarist, you sounded like Joe Satriani or Marty Friedman, or maybe Stevie Ray Vaughan. At the time, if you played jazz/fusion, you sounded like Allan Holdsworth or John McLaughlin, or maybe Mike Stern. Then came Instrospection, and it instantly gave rise to a kind of music that never existed before.

Greg Howe is not merely a good guitarist, he is so phenomenally good that listening to his leads makes you either want to become a rock star or quit entirely. This was always true, even in the 1980s, when he was playing 80s metal. But when he released Instrospection, he was playing a strange-sounding jazz/fusion. Strange, because it didn't suck. Strange, because it was all the best of 80s guitar pyrotechnics combined with intense be-bop licks previously only played on saxophones. Strange, because it was a mature artistic statement coming out of two artistic movements - jazz/fusion and Shrapnel Records - that has never produced something so profoundly artist (before or since).

1993 was just the beginning. Over the following two decades, Howe would release a series of records, each one better the one prior. He is one of those rare artists who seem to improve in both skill and artistic delivery with each passing year.

Today, Howe plays with some of the best, most accomplished jazz musicians in the business, and yet he does so in a unique "Greg Howe" style that only he can pull off. His impact and influence on the guitar-playing world is so profound that many people don't even realize when they play certain licks that they are imitating Greg Howe. A great example of this is Guthrie Govan. Govan is an accomplished guitarist in his own right, but everything "new" that his fans hear in his music is territory already well-tread by Greg Howe.

Before Howe, jazz/fusion was a joke and Shrapnel Records meant 1,000 Yngwie Malmsteen impersonators. Greg Howe has given rise to a genre of instrumental expression that is both awe-inspiring and artistically powerful. Do yourself a favor and take a deep dive into his unbelievable music.

Here, I'll get you started: