Allan Holdsworth churns personal soundtrack from his echo chamber
“Most of the things I played weren’t particularly technical in the sense of requiring exceptional dexterity. They were all about the emotion and staying true to the concept of supporting visual images. That’s very different than making a normal record, where the focus is just on a piece of music and soloing within that.”
Grammy-nominated Allan Holdsworth isn’t capable of recording normal records or performing normal concerts. The legendary British journeyman is considered one of the world’s most underrated guitar innovators, using synth technology (the SynthAxe, a guitar-like synth-controller) to full technical proficiency and awe-inspiring collaborations.
In several lifetimes, he’s mastered the lush, orchestral and the intimate, intricate, the prog-rock and the standard jazz, and with artists as revolutionary as he is: drummer Gary Husband (Level 42), Soft Machine, the late drummer Tony Williams, drummer Bill Bruford (Yes), King Crimson, and violinist/keyboardist Eddie Jobson, among many, many others.
But in 2001, the man named by Guitar Player as “Best Guitar Synthesist” put out a different record altogether, one held together by pure emotion and very little studio magic. Life had beaten Holdsworth down. He suffered a failed marriage, so much inner turmoil, and was at a loss, quite literally. “And I didn’t have a recording studio anymore, because I had sold my Trident mixing console and most of my other gear and was living in a rented house where it wasn’t possible to record guitar or live drums…” he described.
Holdsworth went back to his trusty SynthAxe, an expensive synthesizer controller he and many other guitarists swear by. He didn’t have his Oberheim analog synthesizers for those “fantastic string sounds,” just “a bunch of Yamaha TX7 and TX816 digital synth modules,” leaving the guitarist with a major problem. How could he make a record without his synth arsenal?
His decades-long career as the synth master enabled him to make-do with a brilliantly full, yet spare mood album — his 11th — reflecting his emotional state in imperfect, fragile waves, breaks, and natural movement (rain, a car starting in the fragmentary, poignant, “So Long”).
Re-released on May 14, 2012 by MoonJune Records, the all-original “FLATTire, Music For A Non-Existent Movie” captures Holdsworth at perhaps his lowest and his best. If the listener isn’t careful, this soundtrack without a film could pass listlessly as the background noises of a computer on its last legs, nothing more, nothing less.
A careful listener, however, will go through the same trials, tribulations, and sense of loss as Holdsworth with rapt attention, digging further and deeper into his helpless rabbit trails done to exquisite form. The entire album of only nine original instrumentals by Holdsworth (who plays guitars and SynthAxe) does the job of capturing his pain and loss, within the context of a very intelligent, very technically proficient prog-rock/jazz artist who knows what the hell he’s doing. It’s as if a robot developed feelings and found some spare parts in an abandoned garage at the end of the world, and began to play.
“I had just gone through a difficult divorce and was experiencing a lot of pain and feeling very lost and introspective,” Holdsworth said. “I had always wanted to compose music for movies, but had never been given the opportunity. Whenever I watch a movie I like to imagine what sort of music I might compose for a scene, to create a particular kind of atmosphere, because when I see something I hear something. So, while recording ‘FLATTire’ I tried to create these imaginary movies in my head and then write themes for them.”
Holdsworth achieves that imaginary movie composition best in “Bo Peep,” which comes in at #8 and features special guest Dave Carpenter on acoustic bass. The keyboard synth action echoes a thousand previous movie soundtracks as characters filter onto the screen of the mind, with an actual reverb melody as wildly divergent harmonics play off its mincing intro — never leaving the emotional trail entirely. Holdsworth is clearly playing around with the limited tools at his disposal, as he goes.
“Most of the things I played weren’t particularly technical in the sense of requiring exceptional dexterity,” he said. “They were all about the emotion and staying true to the concept of supporting visual images. That’s very different than making a normal record, where the focus is just on a piece of music and soloing within that.”
Allan Holdsworth manages to write himself into an imaginary movie in his mind, and get a hold of some of the myriad emotions coming out of him after some terrible blows in his life — all while holding onto that well-earned legendary journeyman status. For those willing to follow along the same journey, “FLATTire” is well worth trudging through some depressing chord changes. Hopefully, the album served as the best sort of musical catharsis.
Article first appeared in Examiner Oct. 28, 2013. Allan Holdsworth passed away April 15, 2017.