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  Robin Guthrie  
  Bella Union  
Release Date:
Reviewed by:

Perhaps i am not the best person to eview this album. All you need to do is read this site and you should realize that i am a big Robin Guthrie fan, and this is his first solo album.

After giving it a few listens, i admit to being somewhat underwhelmed. This is a case of one's expectations actually harming an experience. You see, i listen to a fair amount of ambient guitar music. I really like the genre, as a sampling of reviews on this site will reveal (see especially reviews of Lanterna, Portal, and Yellow6, but more are to come, i promise!). When you think about, Mr. Guthrie is, in many ways, the Grandfather of Ambient Guitar Music. The entire genre owes a huge debt to the music he played during the 80's in Cocteau Twins, although he himself has not released an ambient guitar album until now.

So, with that in mind, what new revelations would Mr. Guthrie have for this smallish genre that is one of his descendents? What new and innovative things would he do here? I expected, i suppose, for this album to revolutionize the genre. In some small way i expected that in the future i could discuss "pre-Imperial vs. post-Imperial ambient guitar music". So it was with much expectation that i got this album and put it in the CD player. I sat back, expecting to be wowed, to be blown away with innovation.

And i wasn't. The music on Imperial is very similar to the recent work of Yellow6, Lanterna, or Aarktica. Not that this is bad by any means, it is just, well, not the stunning revelation that i expected. But that is my fault and not Guthrie's.

Really -- this is a very pleasant, quite solid, ambient guitar disc. It shows the beauty that one human with a guitar and a whole mess of pedals can create. Despite my initial dissapointment, i kept listening to it. I would think, on one level, "Man, this is the same old stuff" then on another level i would think, "I really like the use of tremolo here on Into Stressa."

So i was rather ambivalent about Imperial for a quite some time, and i have written three previous drafts of this review that have been scrapped. How could i write about this? What should i think about it? Is it good, and my disappointment leads me to underrate it, or is it really bad and my admiration for Guthrie colors my judgement?

What to do? Well, fortunately no Minion is an island, so i invited others over to The PostLibyan Cave and put Imperial on as we sat around and chatted. The overall verdict was positive. No one fell asleep and no one complained. A few people even commented on how they liked the guitarwork, and asked who the artist was.

So, several Minions agree: Imperial is a worthwhile album. Whew, i am glad to know that it's not just me. At first i was very expectant, then disappointed, then i grew to like the album, and i wasn't sure what part of that process was honest assessment and what part was unconscious reaction. Well, now we know.

All that said, let's consider the acutal music, shall we?

The disc starts out with the title track, Imperial, which builds painfully slowly out of guitar with the faintest hit of keyboards in the background for about 4 aching minutes. Then a drum beat kicks in, and the song becomes much livelier. It is a good intro to the album.

The next track, Freefall is a guitar and piano affair that is reminscent of the album The Moon and The Melodies that the Cocteau's did with Harold Budd. It has a similar hazy, wandering feel, and builds slowly.

Thunderbird Road is up next. From the title one would expect this to be a rocker, somehow. And yet, this is the most minimal song on the album. It is constructed out of rumbling echoing chords, and honestly reminds me of the work of Rothko (who oddly enough have released an EP on Bella Union, the label Guthrie co-owns with fellow ex-Cocteau Twin Simon Raymonde). This is a decent and quite delicate tune, but the ending is particularly nice, where Guthrie layers in waves of overdrive, bringing the sound to a climactic peak, and then the whole thing just fades out.

The next track, Tera is more electronic than the rest of the album. It starts with a wavering keyboard loop and a staticky beat. Guthrie strums over this, his guitar played through gobs of tremolo. The overall effect is lovely, and i rather like this tune.

Next, Crossing The Line starts with a slow, minimal intro that is very similar to Thunderbird Road, but the song gets busier from there. A tinkling, tense keyboard riff comes in to provide a monotonous rhythm, and string hits wander through periodically. Guthrie's guitar is loud, with long distorted notes. This is an odd song, more psychedelic than ambient.

Into Stressa is next, and features loads of tremolo on the guitar. In fact, this tune reminds me a good deal of Guthrie's work in Violet Indiana. This song is a little slower than Violet Indiana tunes tend to be, and in a way it suffers for the lack of Siobhan DeMare's voice. I actually think this would have made a better Violet Indiana tune than it makes an instrumental, but still, it's not bad.

Next is Music For Labor which again features wavering keyboards. Guthrie's guitar here is more echoed and less tremoloed, and the song really reminds me of mid 80's Cocteau Twins. Good stuff.

The next track, Falling From Grace, is rather different. The guitarwork here is very light and distorted in an entirely different way. I am not sure what he is doing here, but i can tell that there are several guitar layers, each playing slightly different parts. This is a really beautiful piece. The layers play off of each other wonderfully.

This fades into the prominant piano of Elemental, which is the most "normal" song on the album in the sense that it is the least ambient. Piano and guitar combine with layers of real drumming to create an almost rocking tune.

However, the album's closer, Drift is pure guitar ambience, adequately described by its title.

So there you go, 10 songs from Guthrie. I like it, despite my intial disappointment, and other Minions who are not such extreme Guthrie fans enjoyed this album as well. What more recommendation do you need?

Related Links:

Many. Here are a just a few:

  1. Mr. Guthrie has, in the course of this year, remastered many of the Cocteau Twins albums. PostLibyan did an exhaustive review of the first 4 re-masters, but this link will take you to a sort of overview.
  2. Stars and Topsoil, a Cocteau Twins greatest hits compilation.
  3. Special, the most recent EP by Guthrie's band Violet Indiana.

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