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Friday, July 29, 2005

Unsung guitar heros (or, my top five axe players)

Top ten guitar players. Lists appear in the less adventerous music publications from time to time, to inform the public which axe masturbator can fretwank with the greatest efficiency; these have the predictable figures in the in the upper few. Hendrix. Clapton. Vai (urgh, dirty). Gilmour, if they're feeling slightly risqué. While these esteemed gentlemen may be technically superb (Gilmour, Vai) and, at times, innovative (Hendrix), their 'sound' has become almost familiar to the listener's ear. Imagine how revolutionary 'Voodoo Child' must have sounded the first time around; now, it barely elicits an attempt to air-guitar that riff, or maybe a quick hum: "dummm, de dum dum..". We can't blame Jimi for this; after all, he's dead. Who knows what he would have been doing had he been alive today.

So I present unto you my favourite strummers and pluckers from recent history, and maybe one from the past. Guitar music isn't dead; all the good players can't make enough to quit their dayjobs.

5. Joni Mitchell (Blue era)

Although usually credited for her ethereal and yet to be bettered singing voice (despite a prodigious death-stick habit), Joni's guitar playing sounds as quirky and fresh as ever on Blue. When asked (probably in by Mojo) about her technique, Joni simply responded: "I turn the keys and strum chords until it sounds good." Simplistic at the best of times, Joni's strength is that her strange tuning often lead to very original chord progressions - Blue is stocked full of them.

4. Aurelio Valle (Calla)

With their third full-length, Calla became something much greater than the sum of their parts. On paper, they make deeply melancholic, minimal 'slowcore'. In reality, these words do little justice to the unique mood they craft - a large proportion of their sound rests upon Aurelio's evocative guitar-playing. His touch is slight and subtle, as for most of the record he doesn't actually play in the traditional sense; he allows his guitar to gently feedback, and the few notes he plays are carefully chosen to meld with the beautifully minimal basslines. When he does crank up the distortion and let rip, as on "Strangler", his riffs are jerky, angular and lurch from moment to moment. No doubt strange tunings abound. Please go and listen to Televise, at a substantial volume, in a darkened room, with a glass of whisky.

3. Adam Pierce (Mice Parade)

Better known for his incredible drumming ability having manned the stool for bands like HiM, The Swirlies and The Dylan Group, Adam Pierce became "Mice Parade" (an anagram of his name; clever) for his first solo release in '98 and since then has produced a series of albums that have mixed world, folk, jazz and post-rock influences into one cohesive whole. Mookoondi (2001) showed Pierce at his most progressive - the record is a collection of pieces with a number of movements, tied together by his beautifully simple yet innovative playing; chords are layered, perfectly syncopated riffs fall between the snappy snare drumming. His most recent release, Bem-Vinde Volade, has received a somewhat lukewarm reception due to his inclusion of vocals on almost every track - however, his guitar playing is better than ever.

2. Alex Hall (Grails)

What can I say? Simply the best traditional post-rock guitarist still recording today. Grails' sound is much more than simply an update of Dirty Three's violin-versus-guitar schtick, and the reason for that is the melancholic and maudlin melodies Hall produces. Rather than do the whole quiet-loud-quiet cliché that bands like Mono have done to its logical conclusion (read: inpending apocalypse-loud bits), the band explore each riff and quickly move on, creating a feeling of each song having distinct movements - despite being (almost without exception) under five minutes. Redlight (2003) sees Hall at his very best; the menacing buzz of The Volunteer (complete with sax arrangement), the sparkling traditional Dargai, and the simply sublime title track.

1. Victor Villereal (Cap'n Jazz, Ghosts & Vodka, Owls, Noyes)

If you haven't heard either the full-length Ghosts & Vodka (now reissued with the 7" tracks included as Addicts And Drunks) or the Noyes self-titled EP, lay hands on them however you can. Technically brilliant and sounding unlike any other guitarist that ever lived, VV moves in a space of his own. As G&V, he blended huge emo riffs with difficult time signatures and grotesquely large hooks. As part of Owls, he brought his jerky, notes-dropped-everywhere style to the more serious playing of the Kinsellas. As Noyes, he explored jazz influences, with no less sucess. Describing his playing is difficult at best: at times, heavy and unrefined; elsewhere, his riffs are relentlessly complex in both time signature and melodic composition. Seriously, go out and listen to him. You may ask what he's been doing since, and the truth is no one really knows. Some friends say they've seen him on the streets of Chicago with a heroin addiction, some say he's cleaned up and is furiously working on another record. I can only hope for the latter, in the vain hope that this astonishing guitarist doesn't go unrecognised.

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