Wednesday 20 January 2021

The John Irvine Band - The Machinery of the Heavens (2020)

Country: UK
Style: Fusion
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 16 Oct 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website | YouTube

Many thanks to John Irvine, who kindly sent me his fourth album, The Machinery of the Heavens, for potential review. I believe he did so after reading my take on Solstice's Sia and that fits, because, like Solstice, Irvine could be categorised as prog rock, though, just as we can't talk about Solstice without bringing up folk rock, we can't talk about this without mentioning jazz. This is fundamentally a fusion album, in the tradition of Allan Holdsworth rather than, say, Brand X.

Irvine lives and works in Scotland, so it's not surprising to hear Scottish elements in the opener, Dark Skies. I think that's a keyboard rather than a guitar, but it's clearly trying to be a set of bagpipes. This is a bright and cheerful opener that doesn't seem to be doing anything wild, except that it ends oddly because Irvine's guitar seems to take up the rhythm in the form of a riff while the drums take the lead by embellishing over them. I like that.

If the album title and cover art don't suggest a futuristic feel, then ...and How Much for the Robot? is going to hammer that point home. Irvine plays everything but the drums here, those being the realm of Rich Kass, and that includes a lot of keyboards throughout, but this one features a more overt use of electronica than elsewhere, inserted as futuristic texture. There are times in this piece of music and in others like Lunar Fields where I wondered if Irvine was auditioning to score a science fiction film.

I drifted a bit through the next two songs, because they're more thoughtful pieces and they need our attention, but Gadzooks, as short as it is, running under eighty seconds, grabbed me back. It's a good interlude. Going back, Dangerous Notes may be the jazziest piece here, especially in its experimental midsection. Given that there are only two musicians involved here, it clearly wasn't improvised, but it feels rather like it was. Take It from the Edge feels a little closer to the Vai/Satch approach to a guitar instrumental, but it's jazzier and not as interested in a killer commercial melody to repeat.

I had the same problem after Gadzooks with Lunar Fields and Blast from the Past. Again, going back, I found that there's a lot going on with these, but I had to pay attention. Lunar Fields is a particularly evocative piece but so much so that my brain automatically assumed it was part of a soundtrack and I ought to be looking at something else. Blast from the Past is a delightful piece but it's inoffensive in its delights so it's easy for it to fade into the background. I plan on listening to this again in the dark to see how it plays without distractions.

There's no way that The Machinery of the Heavens will fade into any background. At fourteen minutes, the title track is easily the proggiest piece of music on this album, not least because of variety. Every song on this album finds what it's going to do and does it, whether it's a guitar piece or an electronic piece or whatever. This one has wider goals than just one single feel, though, bringing us a distinctive set of movements in different styles, as it grows and develops.

The first section, for instance, is jazz funk with a Herbie Hancock sound, hardly surprising given what's come before it, though the backing has controlled urgency taking over from the usual lively jazz. The second section shifts firmly into the territory of the electronic auteurs. Initially, it feels like a Tomita piece, before it grows into a mature Mike Oldfield feel, complete with tribal drums, eventually going back to Tomita and a shockingly introspective ending. If we've spent time inside boxes of circuitry and surfing the stellar clouds here, we end drifting in space reflecting on everything we've heard.

I've come to visualise a sliding scale for what Tom Waits calls "really interesting things to be doing with the air". At one end is post-rock, conjuring up soundscapes for us to interpret visually. At the other is jazz, with its constant efforts to define what music is and can be. In between is prog, moving from one end to the other as it deems fit. This album sits in most of the way towards jazz, as I felt these songs a lot more than I saw them. I felt the neon rush of riding a fast motorcycle through Neo-Tokyo in ...and How Much for the Robot? and the movement of giant space structures around me in The Machinery of the Heavens. If I saw anything, it was the blackness of space and I closed my eyes to it and listened.

Now I should go back to find out how Irvine got to this point. I'm intrigued in the way his covers are themed different colours: Wait & See was red, Next Stop blue and Metaphysical Attractions yellow. Is this purple album a mixture of what he a couple on two of those previous albums, taking the stability of blue and the energy of red to create something ambitious? Inquring minds want to know.

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