2015-12-02

Album Review: Tony MacAlpine - Concrete Gardens

Image courtesy TonyMacAlpine.com

There are a few musicians out there whose abilities and proficiencies are so multiplicitous that, to the rest of us, it just seems... well... unfair. Tony MacAlpine is one such artist.

First, and most famously, he's a guitar player who can shred the heck out of a guitar. An early icon of the Shrapnel Records ensemble cast, MacAlpine has consistently evolved with the times, staying at the forefront of the instrumental guitar world whether the current fad is neoclassical shredding, jazz/fusion, straight-up metal, or modern 8-string djent.

Second, he's a remarkable pianist. To that end, I recently heard Eddie Trunk interview Steve Vai on Trunk's Trunk Nation radio show on SirusXM. Vai recounted the story of hearing Tony MacAlpine playing a beautiful piano piece backstage before a concert. Vai asked what he was playing, and MacAlpine said it was Chopin. (To those of you unfamiliar with piano music, Chopin's work is some of the most beautiful and challenging in the history of piano.) Vai asked MacAlpine if he could play another one, and MacAlpine reportedly answer, "Sure, which one would you like to hear? I know them all." That's literally hundreds of compositions that he reportedly knows from memory. Think about that.

Then there's MacAlpine the music instructor. And composer. And sideman. Get the picture? This guy is the real deal. He's a virtuoso on so many levels that it makes mere mortals like the rest of us feel a little bit like we might have wasted some of our time over the years...

Concrete Gardens, MacAlpine's latest offering, is seemingly all about diversity. Like many Shrapnel Records alumni, it can be tempting to pigeonhole MacAlpine as "one of those neoclassical shredders," but on Concrete Gardens, MacAlpine simply won't have any of it.

From the crushing album opener, "Exhibitionist Blvd," MacAlpine presents himself as a thoroughly modern musician - and in the case of his metal side, that means 8-string guitars and syncopated, odd-metered beats that rival anything Animals As Leaders is putting out. Unlike Animals As Leaders, though, MacAlpine's take on modern metal is heavily steeped in consonance, rather than dissonance. The result is something really special: the chaos of the detuned riffs presents an almost minimalist harmonic structure whose details are presented in the melodies of the songs. The highly progressive and aptly named "Epic" is a case in point, and on that one we hear shades of the Tony that proved to be such an integral part of the Planet X prog-metal super-group.

On "Napoleon's Puppet," MacAlpine chooses to take this concept in a different direction. The chunky, detuned riffs become the backbone of a more traditionally "shred" guitar piece, on which we hear plenty of allusions to the neoclassical stylings that defined his early career. But these are only allusions, as the piece is wrapped neatly in a burtal, modern package.

It is a heavy album, but as I said, Concrete Gardens is about diversity. Whether it's a short breakdown in a heavier song, or a composition in its entirety (as with "Poison Cookies"), MacAlpine sets aside plenty of space for his jazz/fusion side. This isn't the sleepy, pearly white, Mike Stern version of jazz/fusion, though, this is the good stuff. It's rich, it's dark, it's progressive, and it's loud. One of the standout elements of these fusion pieces is MacAlpine's ability to double even his most challenging guitar runs on keyboards, giving certain passages a level of emphasis that is usually unattainable in guitar music.

Another important attribute of the keyboard parts on Concrete Gardens is that they enable MacAlpine to avoid what has become one of the most contrite aspects of instrumental guitar music: harmonized guitar. Don't get me wrong, when done properly it can be great, but too often - and this is especially true of shredders like MacAlpine - the harmonies sound dated and dull. But since TMac isn't stuck to playing everything on a guitar, this allows him to apply harmony the way it should be, where harmony takes up not only a different tonal space, but also a different timbre. This creates sonic space in the compositions, which is absolutely crucial in heavy music.

Concrete Gardens features another brilliant musician, Aquiles Priester, on drums throughout the record. What a wonderful choice of drummers for this record. Preister manages to give each track the heaviness it requires, without devolving into the usual "all-double-bass, all-the-time" blast beat thing. Priester's drumming tightens up during the intricate guitar melodies, opens up lots of space during the breakdowns, and keeps the listener engaged and surprised throughout. I'd go so far as to suggest that it is Priester's drumming more than anything else that gives Concrete Gardens the sonic continuity it needs to enable MacAlpine to explore the full diversity of his playing ability.

While the production value of the record can be a little in-your-face at times, I doubt MacAlpine's metal fans will mind so much. For my part, I would prefer a bit more dynamic range in the mastering so that I could more fully appreciate the album's undeniably brilliant performances. Nevertheless, this is a small critique based on personal preference, not on a poor production or mastering job.

If you haven't been keeping up with Tony MacAlpine, you should have been, and lucky for you, Concrete Gardens strikes me as an ideal place to pick back up with one of California's most exciting instrumentalists.