Monday, October 25, 2010

Under A Dark Sky: An Appreciation

Uli Jon Roth is, along with Ritchie Blackmore, the progenitor and pioneer of the movement to fuse Art Music with Heavy Metal/Hard Rock. Though Blackmore was first in incorporating exotic scales and arpeggios in heavy rock in the 70s, Uli took it further than anyone else in the genre: witness the early Scorpions and Electric Sun albums for evidence. The impact of his music is monumental, the post-Randy Rhoads "neo-classical" scene is inconceivable without him. One of the biggest differences between Uli and the neo-classical movement that proceded from his influence is the fact that he has been more serious in integrating the distorted electric guitar into an orchestral context, as opposed to writing lead guitar fixated "concertos" with silly, unnecessary orchestration. Uli took upon himself the role of both composer and guitarist, with no apparent self-consciousness. With "Under a Dark Sky", Roth has reached a peak in his compositional powers; no other artist or release in the genre of heavy rock guitar music has so effectively incorporated distorted lead guitar into an art music context, specifically in terms of compositional intricacy, dynamic range, and thematic depth.

On a more personal note: when I first bought this cd I was forewarned to prepare myself for a listen that would be almost entirely non-Metallic. Once I got past that I was floored by how advanced that Uli's writing has become. He really is a composer that happens to play guitar instead of, say, a lead guitar player struggling to blow up a basic heavy metal structure for an orchestra. He has perfected the place of the guitar among the other orchestral instruments, unlike others who just rewrote the cello cadenza parts for electric guitar. I should also mention that from a purely lead guitar playing perspective, Uli's personal tone, attack, and sense of dynamics has become at least equal to the best living Rock players, such as Jeff Beck and Ritchie Blackmore. Under a Dark Sky takes as its base the pioneering progressive rock of the 70s and, particularly with the lead guitar in Uli's hands, ups the expressive content of the compositions to a heretofore unrealized degree. The guitar becomes like a separate voice, a prime protagonist in an apocalyptic opera.

I must champion also the lyrical content of "Under a Dark Sky". The cd's Weltanschauung operates under a similar air as Beethoven's 9th Symphony, i.e. matters are becoming urgent, hate is killing the world, only love can save humanity. The heavy metal kids might reject such a message in that amusing, willfully cantankerous way of theirs; but, the reality is that humanity remains just as primitive as it ever was, if not moreso with the onset of both the information superhighway and weapons of mass destruction. People cheer murder, worship money, and continue to waste their imaginations on ways to look down on and/or kill each other. Only a devastatingly powerful movement to love can save the world, the answer is inside. Such a sentiment is easy to sympathize with by the mature minded.

It's impossible to overstate the painstaking attention to detail evident throughout this album. In interviews preceeding the release of "Under a Dark Sky", Uli had mentioned how hard it was for him to mix down all the different layers he'd recorded into a single stereo track, and there's no question that this album will be more effectively represented with a 5.1 remix. On the other hand, the limited stereo mix makes the album especially compelling, as it takes many listens to fully absorb the proceedings. The more one listens, the more gets one out of the CD, which to me one of the definitions of great art.

I realize that a lot of people won't like the arty nature of this cd: the choirs, the length, the idiosyncratic song structures. But that's nothing new, as  the great majority of folks don't like to have to focus when they listen to a Rock/Metal cd, preferring to listen to the same song structures ad infinitum. For them, music is mostly entertainment, which of course is fine, it's there for everyone to suit to their own needs. But, as both a musician and composer, I can't help but declare my profound admiration for what Uli has accomplished here. I think this is by far the most musically interesting Rock guitar release so far in the 21st century, with a direly important message.