It's hard to believe that it's been almost a decade since guitarist Darrin Kobetich left the metal he'd played in Hammer Witch and Amillion Pounds behind and embarked on a journey as a solo acoustic performer. Three years ago, he released the hour-long improvisation The End of One Enchanted Evening, a statement of some heft that showed the impressive range of his expressive abilities on the axe.
Since then, he's honed his compositional chops, collaborating on some dramatic pieces at Hip Pocket Theater with artist/writer John Carlisle Moore, and explored electronic ambience in The Panic Basket, a duo with Darryl Wood (Confusatron, Parasite Lost). Now, with The Longest Winter -- due for release in January, with a few tracks available for free download via Soundcloud until then -- he takes a giant step forward, showing how the scope of his artistry has broadened and deepened.
The album consists of a whopping 27 tracks, a dozen of them previously released online in different versions for the RPM Challenge, in which participating musicians create a complete album in a month each February. Those songs were inspired by the memorably cold and snowy winter of 2010 in Fort Worth and recorded quickly in single takes so Kobetich could remember them. As he continued tinkering with the project, Kobetich expanded the array of instruments in his home studio (which now includes a drum kit), and found ways to integrate his disparate influences -- '70s hard rock and metal; the solo acoustic masterwork of John Fahey, Michael Hedges, and Jimmy Page; experimental sounds; and folkloric strains from both America and Europe -- via overdubbing.
"Frontier of Fallacies" gives you an idea of what he's been up to. It starts with a bluesy melody, essayed initially by a reverb drenched electric backed by acoustic chords, over a high-stepping martial beat -- as if Dick Dale were to take up cross-country skiing. When a distorted guitar kicks in, playing long, sustained notes against the melody, the effect is reminiscent of Matt Baldwin's cover of Judas Priest's "Winter" from his album Paths of Ignition a few years back. When Kobetich further orchestrates the melody, adding a mandolin to the mix and kicking the drama and intensity up even further, you can hear his arranger's ear developing.
Even more astonishing is "Without," an Eastern European-sounding melody that, after an initial exposition of the theme, explodes into a full-blown metal rampage worthy of Kobetich's '70s exemplars Scorpions and UFO, complete with shredding leads and squealing harmonics. It follows the album's first peak, "On A Cold Winter's Morning," wherein Kobetich adds kick and hand drumming to the acoustic mix, along with layers of ambient psychedelic murk that recall John Fahey in his '90s "hotel room" phase.
Kobetich's acoustic playing grows ever more expressive, the performances richly detailed as he explores every crack and crevice in the soundscapes he creates. "Primordial Soup" and "Playing in the Hedges" are dark, ruminative pieces that feature his Hedges-inspired percussive tapping and use of harmonics, as does "Mother Time." The things he does with this technique are amazing to hear and even more so to witness live. "Stuck In Standby," another live highlight, is a loping breakdown with some knuckle-busting flatpicking.
"Twin Falls" winds its way through several tempo changes, alternating chunky chords with cascading flurries of deftly-picked lines. "Across from the Afar" is a Near Eastern-flavored workout for Kobetich on the cumbus, a banjo-like Turkish instrument that's strung in courses like a 12-string guitar. The banjo feature "Gypsy Rag" is overdubbed with scratchy noises to make it sound like an old 78. "Have Banjo Will Travel" is a sprightly overdubbed banjo-jews harp duet.
Kobetich's theatrical work has taught him much about programming and sequencing. In between the big statements on The Longest Winter, he'll string together a series of pieces to create a sustained mood or "scene" -- as in the triptych of "Canyonlands," "Desert Wind," and "Deep in the Meadow," which form an island of heartbreaking pastoral beauty in the middle of the disc.
Taken in toto, The Longest Winter is an engaging mind-movie that you can use to warm up the house on cold winter nights. Or approached in sections, there's enough here to provide you with a whole year's worth of discovery and exploration. It's a sound-world that's worth visiting anytime.
- Ken Shimamoto