Monday 11 March 2024

Nick Johnston - Child of Bliss (2024)

Country: Canada
Style: Instrumental Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 8 Mar 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Wikipedia | YouTube

I hadn't heard of Nick Johnston before, but I wasn't going to pass up this gorgeous cover art. He's a Canadian guitarist on his seventh album and, for once, I can buy into everything on his Wikipedia page. He claims strong influences from a string of the usual names, like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eddie van Halen, Yngwie J. Malmsteen and Jeff Beck, but he also states that "I sound nothing like those guys" and he doesn't with the sole exception of Beck, whose touches I did catch once in a while. The influence that leapt out here for me was Joe Satriani, who's all over this material like a rash.

This album isn't as adventurous as Satriani's most recent effort, The Elephants of Mars, which has a lot more versatility to it, playing in all sorts of unusual genres. This, on the other hand, is clearly instrumental rock music and it's happy to be instrumental rock music, with maybe a dip into folk in the title track and a hint towards metal on Momento Vivere. However, as content as Johnston is to remain within a relatively limited scope, this is absolutely going to play best to Satch fans, who I'd think would eat this up and ask for seconds.

Now Satriani is well known for being a technical virtuoso and it's clear to me that Johnston is too, but he doesn't flaunt it as much. When he talks about this particular influence, he talks about his sense of melody as an underpinning for everything else that he does and, from this album alone, I can see that that's what drives him. I haven't gone to YouTube to see what he looks like when he's up there on stage, but I firmly imagine him standing in a spotlight he likely doesn't realise is even there because his eyes are closed as he channels the music through his body. I don't picture him at the front of the stage winking at the audience as he nails something outrageously technical that lesser mortals just couldn't do in a month of Sundays.

However, it seems likely that he could do that should he ever choose to do so. To non-musicians like me, he sounds impressive, clearly talented but no showoff, so we focus on those melodies and how he builds them into something more. Put simply, we listen to his music. Most of it seems laid back, albeit not so far as someone like Eric Clapton who gradually gets more entrenched in soft rock as the years pass, outside his occasional ventures into pure roots. However, there are still moments in tracks like Moonflower and late in Voice on the Wind that I seriously doubt are easy to play, but which he makes seem exactly that.

My least favourite track is easily the first one, Black Widow Silk, not because it doesn't sound great but because it's over almost as it's begun and he oddly doesn't play through most of it. He's clearly not a guitarist who counts his worth by the number of notes that he plays, but I don't believe he reaches twenty by the halfway mark of a piece that only just nudges past two minutes. It's an odd choice to start out the album, because it's less an intro to the entire thing as an intro into a song we never hear, because the title track works off a completely different groove.

That title track may be my favourite, even though he once more waits a long while to join the fray. While the obvious draw here is his guitarwork, with Momento Vivere and Through the Golden Forest perhaps the highlights there, I got a real kick out of the backdrops that are conjured up for him to do his thing against and this may be the best. Moonflower comes close and Black Widow Silk too, but Child of Bliss is a piece to stand out both for the backdrop that's built for almost a minute before Johnston joins in and for his guitarwork once he does. Technically speaking, he was there before the guitars, because he's also responsible for the keyboards, which includes the tasty piano here that plays with an unusual drum sound.

While I'm a little late to the table after six albums I completely failed to notice, Nick Johnston is a clear talent who doesn't just know how to play the guitar, he also knows how to create interesting pieces of music. Of course, there's plenty of back catalogue for me to seek out should I wish, but I wonder what he sounds like in a band setting. That's possible too, because he's made two albums with Archival, for which he sings as well as plays guitar and piano. He's definitely a name I'll keep an eye out for in the future.

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