Album review: EWAN DOBSON – Acoustic Metal

Candy Rat Records [Release date 06.02.13]

Once you see the line between metal virtuosity and classical music the challenge begins.’ So says Canadian guitarist Ewan Dobson whose 2 CD ‘Acoustic Metal’ is a challenging, innovative and hugely enjoyable CD.

If the staples of metal are volume, distortion and the hegemony of bass and guitar over everything else, then the incredible acoustic guitar picker Ewan Dobson finds another way to present the genre. Armed only with his acoustic guitars, he beefs up the sound with the help of durable American drummer Zack Bevelacqua, whose drive, percussive vigour, double time tempos and cymbal chokes push Ewan’s staccato attacks all the way.

‘Acoustic Metal’ is a double CD on which CD 2’s stripped down versions and a handful of sc-fi and horror themed bonus tracks highlight the intricacy of Ewan’s playing, but lessen his unique impact.  I’ve only come across Monty Montgomery who is in any way similar – an acoustic guitarist using 4 amps – but though Monty adds more volume, he leans stylistically towards Americana, whereas Ewan aims for his own genre of acoustic metal.

You suspect that plenty of metal heads will find fault with the genre, if only that for them two twin concepts are mutually incompatible. Ewan Dobson proves otherwise, on an album guided by a rich mix of pure technique, imagination and inspired bravado. He reaches points in songs where his scintillating playing racks up the tension and there doesn’t appear to be any way to resolve it.  But he’s smart enough to utilize a mix of pregnant pauses and tempo changes to twist and turn a succession of interesting arrangements hither and thither.

Much like John McLaughlin before him, Ewan takes his magisterial playing into new territories on the acoustic guitar. He’s the closest you will get to an acoustic shredder, as evidenced by the colourfully titled ‘Evolution Of Frustration -11 – Relief And Return’. If the title seems eclectic, the playing is the opposite. It’s exciting, exhilarating and draws you in. Each surge and subtle emphasis suggest another panoramic vista, albeit one anchored by Zack Bevelacqua’s redoubtable efforts.

‘Sleep Paralysis’ is a frenetic opener that hits you like a ton of bricks, much in the way Satriani did when we first heard his groundbreaking style. It’s a stop-start arrangement with a heavy and restless rhythm track topped by flighty runs over dazzling percussion

‘Moving On’ is a contrasting delicately woven melody leading to the manic, staccato ‘Perfect Eternal.  The shimmering notes of ‘Friendly Science’, make good use of pregnant pauses and subtle dynamics, though the tic-toc percussion almost appears to be running ahead of the accompanying guitar.

Ewan Dobson was the 2009 Canadian Finger style Guitar Champion but he’s blazing a trail of his own in search of the acoustic metal genre.

His delightful playing is all about tone, variation, power, precision and disguised melodies. He’s clearly a one-off, who came to the acoustic guitar after being schooled in metal and hard rock.  The result is that he’s able to bring his incredible chops to bear on viscerally exciting music that breaks the mould of a heavy metal genre too often anaesthetized by its conformity to the norm.

Things get heavy enough on the shifting time signatures and double tracked guitar of ‘Apparition’, which is a tension building piece with incredible thunderous accompaniment from Zack on drums, and lightning runs from Ewan. ‘Flight Of The Escapist’ is predicted on a fusion of speedy precision and a Celtic tinged melody.  Speed Metal never sounded so good!

The guitar and drum collaboration works in perfect harmony, which is incredible because according to the CD info, the respective parts were recorded separately in Canada and Slovenia. Sebastien Cloutier’s crisp and bright mix perfectly amplifies the fusion of the two. Listen for example, to the Celtic tinged ‘Dialogue With The Stars’ which subtly incorporates a delicate melodic guitar line with a pounding rhythm track to give it real heft.

‘Jester’s Dance’ is equally impressive with its double tracked guitars and busy cymbal splashes. It’s not until you delve into the solo guitar pieces on CD 2 that you really appreciate the duo’s meticulous work in nailing the acoustic metal genre.  The bonus tracks are cool arrangements in search of the duo’s treatment, especially the solo version of ‘Dialogue With The stars’, which sounds like a demo of one of the best tracks on the album.

In truth, the exhilarating finger picking and originality of ‘Megaman 2 – Dr Wily’, is hardly metal at all, but if you’ve made it this far you are probably hooked any. Dazzling stuff recommended for the adventurous. ****½

Review by Pete Feenstra

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