Nick Johnston – ‘Remarkably Human’ [Review]
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Is less more?
It’s a question as old as time itself. Modern guitar music tends to reflect the more-is-more mentality. Today’s axe-slingers generally aim for more technique, for more notes in less space, to add more gymnastic tricks to their arsenals.
Sometimes, more really is more; see the likes of Steve Vai and Levin Minnemann Rudess for proof. Most of the time, though, it isn’t. Do a few guitar solo searches on YouTube, and it won’t be long before you get sick to death of the sound of a million wankers wanking, saying literally fuck all.
When music is treated like a sport, it becomes less interesting than sports. Would you rather watch the Olympics, or listen to sweep-picked arpeggios for seventeen days straight?
Nick Johnston – not to be confused with Nick Johnson, the first Pokémon Go player in the world to catch ‘em all – is a master of saying something no matter how many notes he chooses to say it with. As far as career checklists go, his contains some emphatically ticked boxes, including a signature Schecter guitar, three well-received solo albums, and collaborations with the likes of Paul Gilbert and all three of The Aristocrats, namely Guthrie Govan, Marco Minnemann, and Bryan Beller. Along the way, many great guitar-centric tunes have been penned and recorded, and many fans have been won over – myself included.
For Remarkably Human, Nick Johnston has reenlisted the returning Bryan Beller, as well as Porcupine Tree / King Crimson drummer Gavin Harrison. On paper, a hectic prog rampage should surely lie ahead – but this isn’t what Remarkably Human represents. Not at all. This album is progressive, in the sense that it represents the next stage of Nick Johnston’s creative evolution, and most of the songs linger around the seven-minute mark. But it’s also something more than that.
Remarkably Human marks Nick Johnston’s arrival as a composer. Listening to this album, you’re basically listening to a three-man orchestra, not even so much listening as bearing witness to music that is as ambitious as it is successful in achieving those same ambitions. You’re talking zero profligacy, a solid fifty-three minutes during which every note, beat, and rhythmic figure count for something.
Ignore Alien Orders is not the kind of opener you’d expect from an instrumental guitarist’s latest release. Guitar isn’t even the first instrument you’re going to hear – instead, dark and dramatic piano sets the scene for Nick Johnston’s most pensive, foreboding long-player to date. When Johnston’s guitar enters, along with Harrison’s complementary cymbal work and Beller’s warm, tasteful bass, there’s no doubting that uncharted waters lie ahead.
This is an incredibly minimalistic album. Fleet-fingered licks are relatively few and far between, with maximum time devoted instead to long notes drenched in soul. Odd-time sections, those classic prog ingredients, do crop up – as on Weakened By Winter and Fear Had Him By The Throat, both of which boast tasty slices of 7/4 – but you’d barely notice them unless you were deliberately listening out for those particular spots. We’re talking a whole other level of seamlessness.
For me, the ultimate highlight has to be final tune A Sick And Injured Brain. Clocking in at nine and a half minutes and featuring a beautiful guitar-and-drum breakdown, bends that would make Dave Gilmour proud, not to mention a haunting final 6/8 melody that brought to mind Steve Vai’s singular work on Sound Theories…man alive. Perfection. Utter perfection.
Although Remarkably Human isn’t even due out until September 27, I’m already getting hyped about Nick Johnston’s next move. There’s such a wealth of possibilities, and the future is obviously unknowable – but who in their right mind would snub their nose at the thought of Nick Johnston expanding his three-man-orchestra concept to include strings, brass, percussion, a choir, and so on? In any case, Remarkably Human will be more than enough to tide you over until Nick Johnston’s next next album comes along.
TMMP RATING: 100% (Essential Listening!)
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Image © Grant Cooper.