Tuesday, September 16, 2008


Outer Worlds
Umbrello Records (2007)
6 tracks: 75:26
Grade: B-

Culled from an assortment of live shows, Outer Worlds from guitarist Kurt Michaels (joined by two different keyboard players and an electronic wind player on one track) falls somewhat outside the normal spectrum of what I review here at Wind and Wire, but it’s certainly an interesting and well-done recording, one that I think you readers might be intrigued by and some of you even enjoy. Featuring a plethora of retro keyboards and synths on the six tracks here and with Michaels playing electric guitar throughout, the overall category of the music is probably closer to progressive fusion or even progressive rock at times (minus drums). However, Michael’s music seldom, if ever, descends into bombast or over-the-top aural assault, i.e. when Michaels solos, it’s with taste, discretion, even delicacy and grace, not blazing away with outrageous noodling and pyrotechnics. Plus, the keyboard players (Jim Gully on tracks 1-4 and John Melnick on the opus-length 44 minute closing track “One”) really know what the hell they are doing. Whether soaring through the air on smooth washes and pads, dropping in tasty moog solos, adding a dash of jazzy fusion here and there, sprinkling in classic spacemusic flourishes, percolating with quasi-Berlin textures and effects, or even adding some Asian flavors on “Jade Princess,” Gully and Melnick display both abundant talent and technical chops aplenty. Michaels is no slouch either, exhibiting self-control (as mentioned above) but also stepping out and strutting his stuff via power chords, nimble licks, soaring textural lead lines, and various permutations of musical sounds on his electric guitar.

Track length varies widely. The opening thirteen minute-plus “Senor Wences” is followed by “Lamb Chop” (5:44), “Chucky” (2:23), “Jade Princess” (6:01) and “Hitch Hiker on Venus” (3:56), then wrapping things up with the aforementioned gargantuan “One” which clocks in at 43:46! “Senor Wences” has a mysterious air to it, accented by twinkling synths and low-key but still fiery electric guitar lines and eventually evolves into flowing washes over a bed of percussive beats peppered with Frippertonic-like notes. “Lamb Chop” is kinda playful and giddy with a non-stop cavalcade of lead lines and tone-like (almost kalimba-ish) keyboards. “Jade Princess” has that subtle but unmistakable Asian influence, although the stinging guitar solos undercut the spicy flavor at times (too bad). It goes without saying that trying to accurately sum up, in words, the monstrously long “One” is pointless. Suffice it say that when Michaels describes Melnick (in the liner notes) as a “legendary Chicago session musician” it’s easy to see why he uses those words. This track should certainly hold appeal for retro-EM fans who enjoy guitar interlaced with tons of vintage synthesizers. Swinging from powerful to ethereal (the spacemusic bell tones that emerge at 8:00 are ultra-tasty) to psychedelic to somewhat semi-abstract and winding down to a hushed whisper, the track simply has to be heard to be believed.

Outer Worlds may be not my usual cup of tea, but I admit that listening to it on headphones makes it hard to resist its charms at times. As weird as it may sound, I actually enjoyed “One” the most of anything here. But the entire CD is recommendable if what I’ve described piques your interest.

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