Stuart McCallum: Distilled
Released – 03/10/2011
Label – Naim Jazz
Catalogue – naimcd169
For his third album, Distilled, Stuart McCallum draws on the various strands of his musical background to produce an effective, if somewhat simplistic, hybrid work. His experience as a jazz musician, his time as a guitarist in The Cinematic Orchestra, and the combination of electronic music with traditional instruments that characterised his first two albums, are all elements that fuse together on this latest effort.
The album’s title is a reference to the fact that all the tracks are based around samples of his previous work. This is an important factor in deciding the nature of the music, with repetition and simplicity the order of the day. The style employed is a mixture of minimalism, electronica and jazz, with basic but evocative chord sequences providing a firm basis for hypnotic overlying riffs, psychedelic effects and jazzy improvisations. Melody and harmony are kept as simple as possible in order to maximise the potential for exploring a variety of enchanting soundscapes, iridescent textures and intriguing instrumental effects. Whilst this creates an immediately beguiling audio experience, it also means that the record lacks any great depth or complexity, and so suffers accordingly on repeat listens.
Take for example the opening track ‘dR Doctor’. An extremely chilled and trippy mood is immediately established with static harmonies, mesmerising riffs and vivid synth effects. Aesthetically, it can’t be faulted, but there is little else to discover after the initial impact of hearing it for the first time. This remains common practice throughout the rest of the album.
However, this is not to deny the skill with which McCallum has achieved what would appear to be his particular goals with this record. As is typical of minimalist music, the wash of sound created gradually builds as, one by one, more instruments/sounds are added and parts grow in complexity. Further psychedelic mystique is added by delay and filter effects on the guitar, most notably during an improvised solo that builds up towards the climax of the track.
This gradual increase in texture, so common in minimalism, is even more evident at the start of the next number, ‘Hillcrest Part I’; and ‘Hilcrest Part ii’ sees the first real jazz element come across, thanks to a momentary Latinesque electric guitar solo. This piece also establishes a change to a more anguished mood via some dissonant harmonies and drawn out strings.
This effect is developed further in the next track ‘La Cigale’ with its bleak, low pitched string chords straining away in parallel downwards motion. A very Latin infused acoustic guitar solo then enters, complementing the already despair filled temperament. However, this proves to be short-lived as the piece livens up with some bouncier rhythms and another jazzy improvised guitar solo.
The most minimalist sounding moment of the album is the opening to ‘Fokey Dokey’, thanks to a bewitching harp figuration and yet more evocative synth effects. This particular number is also demonstrative of one of the key problems with album, in that after a wonderful beginning, McCallum seems to struggle to know where to go next. Consequently, we get a second half that, although aesthetically attractive, sounds too much like what we have already heard from the previous tracks.
Fortunately, later on in the album, we hear a darker soundscape emerge, most notably during the second half of ‘Inflight.’ Wild, distorted electric guitars suddenly grow so violent and impassioned that it proves a very powerful jolt when heard in the context of the rest of the pieces.
McCallum then rounds things off with the title track ‘Distilled’, which opens virtually in the style of dance music thanks to some catchy electronica and a frisky drum beat, providing an exciting conclusion to the album.
Whilst more variety and development in places could have made this a somewhat more interesting piece of work, there is no denying McCallum’s success at what he set out to do. The stark, basic harmonies and simple, repetitive musical ideas he uses allow him to explore vivid instrumental textures and expressive sound effects, creating a rich and enrapturing world of sound to lose yourself in. Whether the record will continue to be so effective after a few hearings is doubtful.