Stéphan Forté – The Shadows Compendium (Listenable Records, 28 February 2012)
Ugh, I can’t believe it’s only Wednesday. Last week, with the holiday and me adding on a vacation day, I only actually worked three days… which I think has now totally spoiled me, because I keep feeling like the workweek should be just about over. This sucks. I spent most of the past couple days listening to some ultra-heavy monolithic death metal, which is usually great for settling the nerves and calming me down. Right now it isn’t really doing it for me, though, and I’m afraid the next person that bothers me is going to end up with a pretty nasty punch to the throat unless I find a better way to chill out. Considering the fact that the majority of the time, I deal with the pain-in-the-ass people over the phone or by e-mail, the whole punching thing might be a bit awkward, but believe me, I’d find a way.
So that brings us to the subject of this review, since I was looking for something totally different to listen to. How about some guitar-driven instrumental metal? Probably not something you’d expect me to gravitate towards, especially since I’ve discussed some of my thoughts on the genre previously, and how it can really rub me the wrong way unless it’s done just right. I was a bit skeptical too, at first, especially when I saw this album cover (see above) and noticed how much this guy looks like a French Steve Vai with a bunch of eyeliner. But then I decided, what the hell, I can be open-minded and at least check out a song or two, then move on to something else.
Well, I’m glad I did give this album a chance, because honestly I was pretty impressed by the quality, and — if I can say this without having it sound like a backhanded compliment — I was surprised by the overall lack of pretension and pomposity that one normally expects from solo guitarists (e.g. Yngwie, etc.).
So first of all, I didn’t recognize the name of the artist, Stéphan Forté, but after hearing his work I went to do a bit of research. I learned that, although he’d only put out one demo under that name in the late nineties prior to releasing The Shadows Compendium earlier this year, he’d actually been pretty prolific in the years between. Mostly, as the guitarist and founder of the symphonic metal band Adagio. That was a name I did recognize, because back in the days when Napster was a thing (about ten years ago), I remember stumbling across their unique instrumental cover of “The Immigrant Song” which I thought was really well-done. Since that time, I’ve heard a few more of that group’s works — mostly on Last.fm, I think — and have found them to be pretty cool. So I guess it’s not that big of a surprise that I’d like this solo record as well.
The big difference between the work Stéphan does with Adagio compared to his own stuff, as far as I can tell, is the arrangements and instrumentation. I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on the band’s music, since I haven’t heard a lot of it, but in my experience they seem to usually use big orchestral arrangements in conjunction with the traditional metal guitars and stuff. This record, on the other hand, relies on a more standard rock band line-up, with the guitars, drums, and bass complemented by piano parts — as well as the occasional organ and a bit of synth strings here and there to add some lush atmosphere behind the tracks. What hasn’t changed, though, is how heavily the songwriting has been influenced by classical music.
Now, I know a lot of people like to make a big deal about the neo-classical school of guitar shredding, but for the most part, I’ve never really understood the appeal. I’ve heard a lot of music that is very technically complex, and flawlessly executed, but it’s about as interesting to listen to as an orchestra when they’re tuning and warming up. Sure, I’d be impressed if you can play 3,000 notes in thirty seconds, but if it doesn’t speak to me on some deeper level, if it doesn’t make me feel something, then what’s the point?
On the other hand, one of my favorite guitarists has always been Nuno Bettencourt. I’ve never heard his solo material before, or any other bands he’s been a part of since Extreme, but I’ve always admired his ability to play challenging classically-inspired (and sometimes straight-up classically-ripped-off!) parts with precision and speed, without sounding like he’s only trying to show off. A good mix of style AND substance makes for good music; I’m all for taking advantage of your talent and playing challenging material to demonstrate those abilities — but only if it makes sense within the context of the song! Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of empty notes, and you might as well just be playing practice exercises, running up and down scales, since that’d have pretty much the same effect on me as a disinterested listener.
So I guess coming back to my original point, on this album Stéphan Forté (remember him?) doesn’t simply play dazzling, showy soloes just for the sake of playing a bunch of notes; this is a collection of actual songs that feature his guitar playing in the forefront. Plus, he manages to keep things interesting by drawing inspiration from a wide variety of genres, some metal and some not so much. For example, the first track “The Shadows Compendium” opens up sounding like fairly standard prog-metal for about the first minute, before the lead guitar explodes into action; about halfway through the song, it veers into a rather south-Asian-sounding interlude, with lots of bends and microtonal slides, making me think that part was probably played on a fretless guitar (so that it resembles a sitar or other instrument with a moveable scale); then jumping back into metallic territory, ending up with some of those wailing squeal things (I’m not sure what they’re called) that Dimebag was often known to do (i.e. at the end of “Cemetery Gates”). Similar high-pitched sustained squealing plays a role elsewhere in the album, such as in the earlier parts of “Sorrowful Centruroïde,” and more Middle Eastern or Asian influences pop up from time to time, lending a bit of exoticness, such as the Indian-flavored percussion sprinkled throughout the middle of “Spiritual Bliss” as well as the insertion of what might have been an electric sitar intertwined with some jazzy clean guitar in the background of that same song.
Of course, classical music serves as one of the main influences on this collection of songs, such as the blazing dualling guitar section in “De Praestigiis Daemonum” that bears a resemblance to “Flight of the Bumblebees,” and “Duat” which in some places reminds me of Bach‘s “Prelude and Fugue in D Minor” played on guitar. Interestingly enough, later in that song there is an organ, but played in a style that sounds more like ELP than that Baroque master, although later still we do get treated to a bit of harpsichord, seemingly bringing everything full-circle. “Prophecies of Loki XXI” comes the closest to how I remember Adagio sounding, with its piano, harp, and other orchestral instruments in the introduction, while the rest of the song contains a heavy dose of piano-playing — which is nearly as prominent here as the guitar itself!
However, the height of the classical content (and piano) comes in the final track, “Improvisation on Sonata 14 in C# minor” which is based on the titular opus — more commonly known by its nickname “Moonlight Sonata.” This song is built upon the rhythm and arpeggios of the left-hand piano part in the Beethoven original composition, with Forté’s guitar filling in the melodies. For the most part he stays pretty true to the original (in a rather mellow, muted tone that brings to my mind the instrumental interlude “Mano de Mono” from COC‘s Deliverance album), while weaving in and out of the occasional flourish and variation. A rather understated piece altogether, and a fitting end for a surprisingly enjoyable album of guitar music.