Thursday, June 17, 2010

Helmet of Gnats "High Street" Review

Had a chance to listen to “High Street” in its entirety last night and, I’ve gotta say, I very much enjoyed the album. I loved the way the recording sounds -- nice clarity and space and punch where needed, some interesting sound effects here and there, cool panning, really solidly-written long-form songs, and great playing (and tone) from all involved. Bravo HOG-meisters!

I enjoyed all of the songs to varying degrees; I think the Gnats really know how to put a tune together, with a particularly cool emphasis on writing interesting endings – I love that; a cool ending is one of my favorite things about songwriting and all four of these songs have ‘em. Gotta love consistency.

Focusing on the third track, “Dozer” for a moment, there’s attention-to-detail moments like the guitar nod to Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond Part 1” at 11:58 – very cool, Chris, I love stuff like that – and those trademark HOG deep grooves that just drop into place (like at 3:09) where all the guys get to show their improvisational prowess. Chris, I love the total attitude you take on the lead guitar at 6:51 – your intro there is just commanding and dripping with sass (and, dude, Bocchino’s Emerson-y super-speedy synth preceding your solo is just so, so killer).

Since “High Street” is a concept album relating to growing up in the ‘70s, there’s a healthy dose of killer vintage-sounding instrumentation going on, from the cool Hammond B3 and ARP-esque synth work by the incredible Matt Bocchino -- an absolutely shredding keyboardist if ever a wiz there was – to Chris Fox’ often Holdsworthian lead guitar tone and sparkling-clean rhythm, to the thick and punchy bass (fretless and standard, I believe) courtesy of Wayne Zito (smoking!). Drummer Mark Conese’s sound is wide-ranging and captured a very “live” feeling to me; impeccable groove.

While I can’t say the 30-minute title track flew by particularly fast – not surprising for a first listen, please believe – I did uncover a lot of interesting melodies, riffs, and jams to keep my attention focused the entire duration; no small feat. The Gnats clearly paid attention to the creation of an ebb and flow for such an extended composition; it’s definitely a journey and the “schoolyard kids” foley effect imparted an emotional impact on me for whatever reason. I like how I was fooled into thinking the song was ending at the 20:46 mark; from there, the epic just goes to another level entirely, with what I absolutely consider the epitome of Chris Fox’ guitar soloing. Is it me or is Chris’ soloing in this last 10-minutes on a whole ‘nuther level? Am I crazy or is Chris building a dynamic here, toying with me like a cat does a cricket? It seems to me he was a bit more Gilmour-y and melodic up to this point (not that there isn’t some full-blown shredding going on from time to time) and then BAM! This crazy-ass pure fusion stuff. Love it!!!!

My overall impression of the Gnat’s songwriting style would likely trace their roots to the fusion scene circa the mid-to-late-‘70s, and perhaps a teeny bit further back to Miles Davis’ more experimental “Bitches Brew” phase. They conjure evil, heavy mathematical rhythmic/riff workouts and meld them with classic fusion-y (ie. drop dead gorgeous) chord changes, then drop into some serious deep-groove sections where each of the guys gets a chance to shine in an improvisational setting, eventually returning to the earlier riffs and melodic themes (sometimes re-envisioned), finally wrapping the whole package up with a stand-alone ending, placed with loving care under the aluminum Christmas tree with the rotating color wheel in the back.

Overall, “High Street” is a joyride down memory lane with the top down and the lap-belts off, a fast-moving collection of intricate and groovy tunes that set a variety of scenes for the listener’s enjoyment. Three out of four dentists.

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