Guitar Suite in the Key of Enlightenment (2012)
Mark Halliwell has delivered the promised instrumental ‘guitar’ album, bookending one era and signalling the arrival of a brave new world of fusion, funk and guitar-solo heaven …
This record is not the usual virtuoso fare designed to thrill your average obsessive guitar geek. The strings of the Halliwell guitars may strum, bend and twang in a suspiciously virtuosic manner, but they are only there to serve the breezy melodies and swirling rhythms which are the hallmarks of this incredible recording. Also, for a record intended to pay homage to the hallowed chunk of maple wood, keys and lilting piano abound a-plenty. Add in a few generous doses of funk, jazz and rock fusion, and you have Guitar Suite in the Key of Enlightenment.
Opener ‘Space Funk Baby’ does not disappoint with fuzzy bass riff and airy guitar solos, and neither does ‘The Golden Ratio’ with its gentle acoustic sounds giving way to some floating guitar and keyboard riffology. ‘Fusion City Groove’ is a confident statement, taking the listener on a sojourn of jazz and rock fusion. This is the sound of cruising through a bay-side metropolis in your convertible, the top down as you make for the palm trees and surfside views…this could easily be Halliwell’s 461 Ocean Boulevard.
‘Crazy Patchwork Guitar’ is experimental with odd scales and notes juxtaposed to create a slightly uneasy guitar-scape, while ‘Suite Ensemble’ comes on with a welcome warm acoustic serenade, lulling the listener before it seagues into an inflective hard rock groove. With Halliwell, things are never quite as they seem, as per the eighties-style pop beats of ‘Flower of Life’ which are overlaid with atmospheric riffs, and then replaced by an extended outro of edgy jazz rock n roll. ‘Sweet as Applepie’ starts with a plaintive lilt before taking off with trade-mark harmonised guitar solos.
It’s a brave new world, nothing is quite as it seems, and cruising through a city in a convertible is cool. These are the messages which flow from Enlightenment. So why not get in and go for a ride?
Mark Halliwell is the solo artist that almost never was. As a fledging musician, he instinctively identified with rock n roll bands, and the creativity and excesses that flow from the band dynamic. In the mid-nineties, he would relocate to the Melbourne suburbs searching for an outlet, and found one in the shape of an unnamed stoner rock band formed with two like-minded mates. He promptly took up residence in a student house (Baker Street), which was known to be full of deranged twenty-somethings and brimming with chaos. He held court with a bevy of musicians, freaks, hangers-on and anyone else who happened to drift through the front door. The band drew inspiration from this environment, giving voice to optimism and confusion with the ground-shaking riffs and rhythms which became their stock-in-trade.
Ingenious rock songs were written, performed, perfected, forgotten (or discarded), and written again. Suddenly the impossible seemed not only attainable, but easy. Meanwhile, the police became frequent visitors to Baker Street as irate neighbours pleaded with them to quell the racket. Halliwell and co were unfailingly polite and compliant with the demands of the local constabulary, but their hapless neighbours were to learn that, sooner or later, the riffs always came thundering back…
The heady nineties, a decade marked as it was by various burgeoning rock and pop movements that seemed to fizzle out almost as quickly as they had exploded, gave way to a new millennium. Now, at last, it really did seem that everything in music had all been done before. Rock n Roll settled comfortably into derivative mediocrity. Disillusioned, Halliwell traveled back to where it had all began. But he was not beating a hasty retreat, at least not musically. Back in Warrnambool, Halliwell wasted no time in plugging into the local acoustic scene, and for the first time embarked on a genuine song-writer’s odyssey. Capturing the tension of folksy melody interwoven with murky rock riffs, the result was Halliwell’s first full-length serious studio effort.
Completed and released in 2003, Trips of the Trade is a startling listen. As hinted by its shimmering title, the album is layered with (apparently) chemically-induced imagery and a soundscape reminiscent of Bowie and Dylan at the height of their powers. Songs like ‘Silver Smiles’, ‘The Solar Trip’ and the title track all demonstrate the potential of a song-smith who was reluctant to allow a natural drive toward guitar-virtuosity to subvert a cutting-edged creativity.
Halliwell proceeded to go forward at brake-neck speed. In 2004, the majestic bombast of Disjointed Themes followed rapidly on the heels of the more whimsical ‘Trips’ . This collection of manic hard rock and art-metal provoked everything from casual intrigue to unhinged excitement. Halliwell is inclined to refer to ‘Themes’ as a “concept album”, yet the tracks on the record are as separate and distinct as they are united (a paradox heightened by of the ‘disjointed’ descriptor in the album title). But from the moment the disc is spun, semantics fade as the listener is pounded by Sabbath-laden riffs in ‘The Black Sense’, mesmerised by the rhythmic incantations of the ‘Concentric’ compositions, and transported by the folksy sunset cinema of ‘April Evening.’ The popularity of the latter track lead to the release of the limited edition April Evening/Ballad of Resolve EP in 2006.
Next came the ethereal laid-back ride of Aural Sculpture Volume 1. A whirling conundrum of paranoid psychedelia, infectious looped rhythms, chiming guitars and haunting string sections, this album is an arresting, carefully crafted work. Like any classic record, it defies easy description and conventional analysis. Lyrically, Halliwell effortlessly invokes the biting satire of Iggy Pop, the delusional musings of Maynard James-Keenan, and the menacing post-punk despondency of an Ian Curtis. From the inspirational tale of rebirth in ‘The Hitman’ to the mesmerising splendour of the closing track, ‘Opium suite opus’, this album seems to bend space and time in a manner that would confound physicists and spiritualists alike.
‘Volume 1’ was not strictly a solo record, having originated from a hazy jam session with band-mates from Warrnambool cover-specialists, Phase 3. Through the lens of Aural Sculpture, Halliwell applied musicianship, expanding studio knowledge and flashing imagination to reincarnate a commercial covers band as crazed merchants of hallucinogenic rock n roll. Aural Sculpture Volume 2 is much anticipated, but for the moment, progress and release date remain uncertain.
In 2008, Halliwell was abandoning new musical innovations in favour of a classic rock sound. Awaken from a Coloured Daydream pays overdue homage to legends like the Beatles, Bowie, Dylan, Fleetwood Mac and Neil Young. It is a masterful record that effortlessly evokes these influences without degenerating into the kind of plagiaristic nostalgia which sink the albums of better-known artists who attempt the same thing. Lyrically, ‘Daydream’ finds Halliwell in a reflective mood as he wrestles with the conflict between despair and inspiration. But this record really finds its feet and spreads its wings in the music. ‘Now and Then’ is a shiny sound-of-summer exhortation to stop dithering and get on with it, while ‘The Closing Prayer’ rumbles and rises in the manner of an epic psychedelic rock anthem straight from the early seventies.