Provogue [Release date 23.02.18]
From the free form intro of ‘Squirrels’ to the Noirish spoken word intro and melodic resolution of ‘Speak Now, Make Your Peace’, Michael Landau takes up on a complex musical journey that promises much and delivers in part.
Landau is a go-to west coast guitarist whose CV includes Miles Davis, B.B. King, Pink Floyd and Joni Mitchell. And it’s to his credit that on ‘Rock Bottom’ he treads his own eclectic path.
He’s a feel player for whom restraint gives him several dynamic options, while he joyfully leans into the grooves and consistently aims to embellish the songs rather than dominate them.
‘Rock Bottom’ is by no means a concept album, but the title could almost be a reference to the feel and ambience of an album that relies significantly on tones, moods, grooves and contrasting solos, over back drop of a subtle stuttering rhythm section.
Michael Landau is a ‘players player’ who combines fusion and feel with tonal depth, welcome restraint and an unwavering focus on creative expression.
The album owes much to Landau’s late 70′s tenure in David Garfield’s Karizma. The same broad stylistic brushstrokes, adventurous spirit and Hendrix influenced wah-wah are at play.
Listen for example, to the sheer feel of ‘We’re All The Same’, which is touched by greatness, but much like the album as a whole, doesn’t quite reveal enough of itself to beguile us.
‘Rock Bottom’ barely wastes a note on an intricately woven album, rooted in exquisite interplay. That said, it’s also a frustrating album that on the one hand sparkles with uplifting musicianship, subtle tonal colours, and even visionary moments, but on tracks such as ‘It’s Alright’ it almost settles for the mundane.
Then there’s the conceit of the atmospheric ‘Freedom’, which draws us in, but fails to deliver either the lyrical depth or more importantly emotion to coherently glue together a meditative jazzy piece with psychedelic squalls and crashing cymbals.
However, if he’s guilty of a micro shortfall, that is not the case with the album as a whole, as each exploratory piece fits into a seamless coherent whole. As a result, the languid bluesy shuffle of ‘Heaven In The Alley’ – complete with a partial faux falsetto, gospel tinged bv’s and David Frazee’s angst ridden vocal – transforms itself into a cathartic release for what’s gone before.
‘Rock Bottom’ is an atmospheric album that balances focus with spontaneity and never loses sight of the bigger picture.The frustrating thing is, that like so many other guitar driven projects it lacks a defining vocalist to match it’s musical sophistication.
This is particularly so on one of the album highlights ‘One Tear Away’, which cries out for the baritone of say, Dead Can Dance’s Brendan Perry or the late Jim Morrison to bring real presence, though Landau does add the kind of harmony vocals that used to get John Cale out of jail.
The album’s almost filmic quality, demands a strong vocal, counter-balance to the post acid crash vibe and while Frazee is a passionate singer, he doesn’t have the warmth and range to match the bluesy feel of some of the pieces.
It’s one thing to add a passable vocals to some inspired bluesy fusion, but it’s quite another to build up a languid piece such as ‘Gettin’ Old’ – complete with an angular solo and spoken word vocals – and then let the piece land feather light with not a tension resolution in sight.
Perhaps it’s Landau’s intention to give this track a link feel and lever us into the exquisite Hendrixy blues of ‘We All Feel The Same’. He colours the track with a lovely volley of piercing and aching notes, and the kind of wah-wah that speaks to us in a manner that some of the vocals don’t.
‘Rock Bottom’ is an adventurous guitar and tone driven album that dips into blues, jazz, and fusion genres to shape its own unique style. With due patience and repeated plays it reveals a broad musical landscape that goes a long way to explaining Michael Landau’s high standing in the guitar world, if not the rock scene as a whole. ***½
Review by Pete Feenstra
Pete Feenstra presents his Rock & Blues Show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio every Tuesday at 19:00 GMT, and “The Pete Feenstra Feature” on Sundays at 20:00
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