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Steve MacLean — Universal
(ReR Megacorp SM9, 2023, CD)

by Peter Thelen, Published 2023-11-12

Universal Cover art

It was a long time ago, but I’ve only heard one previous by Steve MacLean titled The Opposite of War (1997), and that couldn’t be more different from the album at hand. It was a more guitar-centric endeavor, while this latest album Universal is a far more explorative, genre-defying collection that opens the mind for immersion at its finest. Of course MacLean has done a lot of other things in all the years between, but I’m not prepared to discuss any of that. The nine tracks on Universal seem to share some sort of science fiction theme, though given that the pieces are mostly instrumental, with only occasional spoken words, voices, or found sounds, the only clues offered are via the track titles. Also, MacLean plays a lot more than guitar here, in fact many cuts feature no guitar at all, and range from solo pieces to compositions for five or six players, sometimes with MacLean overdubbing an amazing variety of instruments, from synthesizers, lap steel, marimba, sitar, fretless guitars, hammered dulcimer, kalimba, electronics, and more. Each piece features its own guest list seemingly apart from all others, offering everything from saxophones, clarinet, English horn, piano, electric guitar, drums, voices, cello, bass, and more, even an embalming machine with tape FX (!), and no shortage of names either, including Nick Didkovsky and Chris Cutler, among many others. “The Great Attractor” opens the set with an almost orchestral electronic hybrid sound, with MacLean playing layers of software modules, while the follow-on “Zone of Avoidance” is a bit more conventional with a grooving bass line, drums, and saxes standing out against numerous other elements, but no less compelling. Taking a more dreamy approach “Back Home on Mars” is mostly an outing for keyboards and electronics, while the experimental “Andromeda / Milky Way Galactic Merger” opens the door into pure sonic exploration, with guests on piano, guitars, two drum tracks, one forward and one in reverse, and Maclean on all manner of synths and processing. “Robot Hybrids and A.I. Do All of the Work?!?!” is a groovy funky piece for pure electronics and Maclean’s whistling skills, while the set closer “Space Pod Dreams” offers a dreamy environment for marimba and other tuned percussives, electronics, spoken and floating voices, and a whole lot of mystery, but it typifies the immersive qualities of Universal at its finest.

Filed under: New releases, 2023 releases

Related artist(s): Chris Cutler, Steve MacLean, Nick Didkovsky

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