What can you do with an acoustic guitar and a drum machine? Wittox O'Hara's The Surrealist is a mystifying piece of work. Lots of xylophone-sounding timbres weaving intricate lines, much like a percussion ensemble, with plentiful of odd percussion blending in with the eclectic acoustic guitar and occasional accomplice electric guitar, shaping everything together, forming an impressionist world on its own.
by Alain Lachapelle, Published 1995-11-01
Initially I thought there was more to this than only guitar and drum machine.
I once played in concert a medley from The Surrealist, with no percussion at all. Only keyboards and guitar. It's another feeling. It gives a more 'spacey' approach, which I got from Hammill. He's an influence, but I also listen to jazz and free jazz a lot. The saxophone on The Surrealist echoes such influences. David [Parker, sax player] knew the pieces beforehand, but his saxophone is improvised. At the end of the sessions he was quite tired since I asked him a lot. There are two saxophone tracks, and sometimes you can hear both saxes simultaneously.
Although using a drum machine, the music doesn't sound at all like being programmed. There's a meticulous approach, a very detailed manipulation of parameters that we just don't find around too often, that gives the overall result a fresh aspect. This methodical development may evoke at times orchestral Zappa material. An active participant on all fronts.
The machine has capabilities that few people take the time to use to a full extent. Some people will revert to a more or less straightforward rhythm pattern, preferring to focus on other lines. For me, the drum machine is an integral part of the music. Once the percussion lines are defined, I spend months and months working only on nuances and subtleties. I take every drum instrument and inject feeling into them, adjusting each and every parameter building up every sound. But these machines have drawbacks: for instance, a rather short memory, which makes it awkward for live situations. Anyhow, I prefer, when possible, to play with other musicians in a live situation.
And you're not familiar with Zappa's work?
I'm not. A friend, a Chapman Stick player, has just about every Zappa album that exists on the face of the Earth, so one of these days I'll get a good listen. Many people find it very surprising that I don't know FZ.
Wittox O'Hara is a rather new name on the Quebec progressive scene. But he was composing and playing in a few bands since some time now, amongst them Crowd Call, of which we find a piece on the recent compilation disc, Sur la corde raide, a showcase for Quebecois guitarists.
I'd really like to play in a band, but the bass player lives in Montreal and I, in Quebec City. And he's very difficult to replace. Anyhow, we work in a trio configuration nowadays, quite slowly, though. One musician works by ear and the other with partitions. (laughs) So you see, we're not on the same level. What I do is invite the musicians, taking rather simple themes and improvising around them. Thus, we're slowly building the basis of the next album. This trio will be for live performances, mainly. I should be getting in the studio by September for the next disc, accompanied by a few guests. I played the new material as opening act for a recent Echolyn concert in Quebec City. The audience reacted favorably. I kinda feared being too heavy, especially since some of the material is of such nature, but then, after the concert some people told me that I could have pushed more.
The Surrealist will first of all please to RIO fans. The quirky lines appearing and vanishing, with the recurrence of transformed themes, the orchestral drumming and percussion work, the amalgam of somewhat disparate sounds, all are ingredients of the genre. But instead of a systematic, perhaps even cold and intellectual approach, O'Hara offers a rough edge in his music — a groove some may say — over which the unrestrained elements dance in the air. There is a sense of urgency, as if you were suddenly facing, in the dark, the creatures found in the Italian satire of Disney's Fantasia, Allegro non troppo. Indeed, when listening to The Surrealist you enter another universe. The only two pieces of the CD, "Indelebile" clocking at 21:55 and the eponymous piece with a duration of 36:46, offer the listener a door to another, incongruous world where dreams and unconscious visions are the main fare. But this is no somber music.
You like it or you don't. There is no middle ground. For instance, there's a guy in Spain who thinks it's a great piece of work, while there are others, elsewhere, who asks us to take back our CDs (laughs.) Really, it seems there is no in-between. Anyhow, I prefer controversial artists than the ones making unanimity. The upcoming album will be a bit more seated in the progressive rock domain we all are more familiar with. There'll be around seven pieces, two of them being long ones. There'll be perhaps some singing too. I recently got the knack for singing again and found out that, when properly processed, my voice isn't so bad. (laughs)
For seekers after music that draws a tangent from the more usual progressive fare, The Surrealist by Wittox O'Hara proposes a voyage into a sonic and musical scenery that is hauntingly beautiful.
Related artist(s): Wittox O'Hara
Phil Miller RIP – Sad word reaches us today of the passing of another of the great musicians of the Canterbury Scene — guitarist Phil Miller. His distinctive sound added greatly to Matching Mole, Hatfield and the North, and National Health, and he also contributed to albums by Caravan, Dave Stewart $amp; Barbara Gaskin, and many others. He was 68. » Read more
Moonjune to Distribute Tony Levin's Back Catalog – It has been announced that Moonjune will now handle distribution for Tony Levin's catalog of releases. These great albums will now be a bit easier to get hold of, so check out the site and see what you're missing. The veteran of King Crimson and Stick Men worked with a host of great players on these albums, and we've reviewed most of them over the course of the years. » Read more
Bandcamp Shines Light on Niches We Like – Bandcamp has developed into one of the best places to discover new music, and even a lot of old music is showing up there. In addition, their staff has been producing periodic articles spotlighting some interesting stylistic areas. On 20 September, they published one called "The New Face of Prog Rock" which bears checking out. » Read more
Holger Czukay RIP – Holger Czukay, a musical experimentalist without boundaries who has been involved with expanding the sound palette of rock music since the late 60s, has died at the age of 79. After studying with Karlheinz Stockhausen in the early 60s, he became fascinated with the possibilities of rock music, and was a co-founder of the pioneering group Can. He leaves behind an impressive body of work both as musician and producer. » Read more
John Abercrombie RIP – Another of the greats of jazz guitar has left us. John Abercrombie plied his way through a beautiful series of albums on the ECM label as well as bringing his talent to bear on albums by many of jazz's greatest artists. From his early work in the group Dreams to Gateway and outstanding work with Billy Cobham, Jack DeJohnette, Kenny Wheeler, and many more to his own trios and quartets, he brought a unique instrumental voice to the world. » Read more
Opus Avantra - Introspezione, Lord Cromwell & Strata – Led by composer/keyboardist Alfredo Tisocco, and fronted by vocalist Donella del Monaco, Opus Avantra – much like their name might imply, offers a music based in avant-garde classicism mixed... (1995) » Read more