Peter Thelen 22-March-2001 overview

Packaged in a black and white home-made looking sleeve with the artist's name nearly illegibly psychedelicized, Minnesota guitarist Steve Tibbetts' 1977 self-titled debut was a breath of fresh air in the declining years of progressive rock and the seemingly unstoppable ascension of the retro/punk/new-wave phenomena that the trendy mainstream music press couldn't get enough of. While the album may start off sounding a little like a sped-up John Fahey, it doesn't take long to amaze with the strange electronic and experimental avant-gardisms that, while still fairly introspective, define the embryonic vision of a new sound that would come back full force on his second album. The five tracks that make up the first side form a long suite, tying together themes on acoustic guitar and injected with tape treatments, loops, and electronics. That twenty or so minutes of side one is about as strong an opening statement that any solo artist could make. Side two begins in an entirely different mode with "Jungle Rhythm", a powerful multi-tracked solo piece for analog synthesizers, followed by two very quiet introspective pieces: the first for acoustic guitar and the second for synth and taped effects, with the closing track "How Do You Like My Buddha?" being a twisted rocker rife with pulsating synths and double-speed guitar leads. Here the influence of Hendrix is pretty obvious, but wrapped up in this strange and unique electronic stew it all comes out sounding very original.

Having every reason to think his debut would be a one-shot, it was a pleasant surprise when the second album Yr showed up in late '79. Packaged in a similar home-drawn black and white sleeve with hand lettering, that's about where the similarities end. All the loose pieces that made up the first album were drawn together here to create a more urgent and riveting guitar based sound, still driven mostly from acoustic, but shaded and sometimes shredded by an intense electric guitar force. The electronics are still present, but only to a minor degree compared to the debut. Simply stated, Yr is a guitarist's guitar album, and to date it's probably still his strongest overall statement. And while the first album used some hand percussion on a couple tracks, Yr has strong and complex rhythms at work on every track, becoming wholly the equal of the guitar. Its original release was self produced, yet it got wide enough circulation to catch the attention of the folks at ECM, who signed Tibbetts for his third album. Years later ECM reissued Yr with an alternate color sleeve and a remix.

After signing with ECM, they sent Tibbetts and percussionist Marc Anderson to Norway to record Northern Song. This album is a complete departure from the electric pyrotechnics of Yr; the entire album has an overly introspective feel, using only 6 and 12 string acoustic guitar, kalimba, and hand percussion, with minimal effects and processing. The overall feeling is very cold and spatial, and sometimes disconnected. A long section of the sidelong "Nine Doors/Breathing Space" sounds like the studio monitors were turned off and both musicians continued playing, becoming increasingly out-of-sync with each other, until the end where everything comes back together. The opener, "The Big Wind", and side 1 closer, "Aerial View", are probably the album's best efforts, but overall this is Tibbetts at his most experimental and out-of-character. Many of the ideas initially explored here would, after being electrified, provide the basis for later albums Exploded View and beyond.

The second ECM album from 1983, Safe Journey, always seems to get a bad rap, and unfairly so, because while this may be a transitional album, it's certainly the most varied and interesting of all the ECM-period releases. In some cases it recalls the spirit of previous releases Yr ("Vision" and "Test"), and Northern Song ("Climbing" and "My Last Chance"), and in other cases explores fertile new territory and points to directions that would be taken on the next release. "Any Minute" is a 4 minute cyclical piece for guitar loops, hand drums, and marimba that is simply addicting, while the dark and somber "Night Again" plunges into near-dreamlike paralysis, and the closer "Going Somewhere" is a 10 minute collage piece of loops, fadebacks, and extracts from other parts of the album. In addition to Tibbetts' electric and acoustic guitars, kalimbas, and Anderson's congas, the lineup here was expanded with a bassist and two additional percussionists (as required), giving a fuller sound and more contour. For those unfamiliar with his ECM period work, this album is a good starting point because it covers so much of the territory explored from Northern Song through Big Map Idea.

After three years of writing, recording, and touring, Exploded View was finally released. The sound is similar to the previous release with some new ideas, instrumentation, and a stronger sense of adventure: challenging, experimental, and downright edgy at times. Take the opener "Name Everything"; six minutes of ripping chaotic electric guitar and howling feedback, with Anderson and bassist Bob Hughes providing a stable moving structure that ebbs and flows as the piece develops. Likewise, tracks like "The X Festival", "Your Cat", and "Drawing Down The Moon" provide a lot of new ground to cover. Much of the material here seems to have a more improvisational feel (but that's not to say it isn't composed). Occasional wordless voices are used for the first time, as well as steel drums and berimbau (the latter played by Anderson throughout the excellent closer "Assembly Field"). Sadly, this would also be the album where Tibbetts' fast pace of evolution ends: two later albums Big Map Idea from 1990 and The Fall of Us All from 1994 seem to be merely incremental refinements of the sound initially created and developed here on Exploded View.

In Summary, all of the first five Tibbetts albums are absolutely essential, though the best ones to start with would be Yr (for what is his best work), and Safe Journey for a snapshot overview of the styles explored in the ECM period.

Peter Thelen    22-March-2001 The Fall of Us All

Steve Tibbetts - "The Fall Of Us All" (ECM 1527, 1994, CD)

Steve is back with his first solo offering since 1990's Big Map Idea. For the uninitiated, this Minnesota guitarist's music is truly in a league of it's own, anything from a swirling maelstrom of multitracked guitars, hand drums, kalimba (though not featured on this album), tape-loops, and percussion, to ethereal quiet acoustic guitars in dissonant interference patterns (check out 1982's Northern Song for a taste of the latter). On this release, ideas are frequently worked out behind backdrops of heavy feedback, voices, and under heavier-than-usual percussive assault; for those familiar with his earlier work, the intensity here is comparable to his 1986 offering Exploded View, yet with greater variation and refinement. Marc Anderson, percussionist with Tibbetts since the late 70's, is featured more prominently here than any other album to date. In a very free form and seemingly unstructured way, each track connects a series of moments related only by abstract sonic textures, yet every one of the album's eleven titles has a distinct focus, with its energy concentrated in that area. This music is challenging, yet not difficult; those who are not familiar with Tibbetts' music may require a few listens before its subtleties are appreciated. It's only fault - and only a fault in the overview of all of Tibbetts output - is that this album only further refines the styles he embarked on almost ten tears ago, and doesn't really reach out into any new and unexplored territory. Once a master of unpredictability, there is plenty of great music here, but no major surprises.

(Originally published in Exposť #3, p.9, Edited for Gnosis 3/21/01)

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