2015-12-01

Album Review: Ian Fletcher Thornley - Secrets

Image courtesy IanFletcherThornley.com

On October 30th of this year, Ian Fletcher Thornley released the new Secrets album. He had been teasing the fans on his Facebook page for months leading up to the release of the album, posting photos of the recording process and emphasizing the fact that he was playing lots of acoustic guitar. That's significant because he had spent most of the year prior promoting Big Wreck in all its hard-rocking, progressive-infused, shredding brilliance.

But the release of a Thornley acoustic album was a logical next move, one that I didn't find surprising in the least.

All of Ian Thornley's albums, from the first Big Wreck album all the way to last year's Ghosts record feature a lot of acoustic guitar work, but this album represents Thornley's first foray into music that is primarily played on acoustic instruments. The result is marvelous, but certainly something that will divide fans.

On one side of the divide sit the fans who love Thornley's work for all its hard-rocking, screaming, awesomeness - and who have found his post-90s work to have been missing something. I find these folks to have similar tastes to those Soundgarden fans who only ever like hearing Chris Cornell at his heaviest. Like Cornell, Ian Thornley is bound to attract a sizable number of fans like this because he has one of the best heavy metal voices in the business. He can scream with a piercing grit that can keep up with the best of them. Why would someone with such a powerful metal voice sit in a meadow, strumming an acoustic guitar and crooning about love?

Then there are the rest of us, those of us who have been attentive enough to Thornley's music over the years to have spotted all the blues, bluegrass, folk, and country infused in even his hardest material. Thornley himself has been quite vocal about his love for artists like Bruce Cockburn and Tom Robinson. That softer side has always been there, from "Blown Wide Open" to "This Is Where My Heart Is" to "Ghosts." Always lurking just beneath the surface, but never given its own dedicated place to play, Ian Thornley's folk side has finally been given its spotlight on Secrets.

Thus, it is probably no surprise that the album is being promoted through a new website, a new set of social media profiles, and even a new name, Ian Fletcher Thornley.

Since the division in Thornley's fan base is so clear, let me cut right to the chase: Those who only ever like him when he's rocking out will find little to love about Secrets. This album is clearly for the rest of us. And what the rest of us will find on this album is simply wonderful.

First, there is the guitar playing. Slide guitars and finger picking have always been staples on prior Thornley records, but here they finally take front and center, and this makes it clear just how good a folk guitarist he is. Typically when a guitarist branches out into other genres, we can hear the struggle, the hard work it took to just get the music recorded properly. Only a very few artists can cross effortlessly into various styles of guitar playing - hard rock, metal, blues, slide guitar, folk guitar, dobro, mandolin... Ian Thornley handles it all with ease. Close your eyes, and you might think you're hearing the guitar work of Bruce Cockburn or Richard Thompson. But you're not; you're hearing the same Ian Thornley who shredded his way through the outro of "I Digress."

Next is the voice, that wonderful, creaky voice that stands somewhere at the intersection of Chris Cornell, Jim Heath, and... maybe Howard Jones? If you've never really noticed how deft a vocalist Thornley is, Secrets is an excellent album to listen to. With a gentle push, his voice can go from smooth and crooning to bluesy grit, sometimes over the course of a single note. And in Thornley's case, this isn't done willy-nilly or as a display of technique, it's done to highlight the emotion of the lyrics.

That emotion is laid bare throughout the album he sings of love, its pitfalls and rewards, as someone who has experience. This is true folk music, not written to climb the pop charts or to win a fresh crop of teenage fans. This is music written for the mature, the adult, those of us who have been younger, and who have been older, and who can appreciate time from both perspectives.

Rare are the artists who can be so many things. On Secrets, Ian Fletcher Thornley proves that he can be pretty much anything he wants to be, play anything he wants to play, sing anything he chooses to sing, and it will always come through as genuine. Secrets delivers quiet but powerful folk music with all the expertise we might expect from a veteran.

Hard to believe it's his first formal venture into the genre. Let's hope it's not his last.