CD REVIEW: Shouse - Alone on the Sun
By Alex Jasperse - 11/27/2008 - 08:13 PM EST
Album: Alone on the Sun 
Genre: Guitar Instrumental
Production/Musicianship Grade: 9.0/10
Songwriting Skills: 9.0/10
Performance Skill: 9.0/10
As I was trudging home on a wintery day last week, I began to think that when it comes to musicology and the study of communication, I should put forth the following new psycho-creative condition: “Stairway to Heaven Complex” a term used to describe a guitarist who acknowledges that a certain song and/or genre is riddled with clichés, yet persists to write and perform such songs that subsequently provoke large segments of their audience to become dismissive and cynical, banking that a select few will secretly enjoy it. While still in its early ideological conception, I nonetheless thought if something like this became embedded in the artistic consciousness, perhaps we’d see more critical and creative, musical thought…
Grabbing the mail as I opened the door and thawed, I opened an envelope to find Shouse’s latest release, Alone on the Sun, for review. Staring at the album cover, I couldn’t help but notice that it reminded me of something a lot – Joe Satriani’s Super Colossal (2006). Shaved head. Sunglasses. Solemn expression. I flipped it over to see Shouse holding his guitar in the same classic Satriani pose. I will concede that Shouse looks like Satriani’s satanic and muscular lost brother – reinforced by ‘fire and flames’ (original, I know) – and by now I had connected most of the dots on the experience in for. But just to make sure I wasn’t running solely on assumptions, I scanned through the press kit and caught the following two words: “…instrumental CD.”
Within the first minute of “Bionic”, all the warning signs went off: Shouse had fallen into the trap of instrumental guitar clichés, unabashedly continuing to play the hell out of them. (Stairway to Heaven Complex, anyone?)
To anyone who thinks I’m being unfair, I will acknowledge that Shouse is spectacularly talented as a guitarist. He’s got the chops, and he shreds with the best of them. But he doesn’t play or shred like he means it. I’m simply not convinced, because as soon as “Man of Constant Sorrow” and “The Arabian” kick in with the sharp, instantaneously-recognizable instrumental rock distortion, Shouse’s own sound becomes tainted by this familiarity – this conformity – to a sound so well-worn for the past 20 years. And it just continues with a barrage of more of the same, as “Choices” and the title track fling more of the same fretboard blazing riffage directed towards the now-pacified listener.
So as “Shock and Awe” bursts in with machine gun samples just before exploding into 90s metal riffage, pick squeals and whammy pedal action, I can’t help but continue to ask myself: with all this musical power, this much skill and this much knowledge would it be wrong for me to expect an album that reflects that? Sure, I’m imposing my own set of expectations of what I want from Shouse’s music, but “Shock and Awe” is now three minutes in and all I’m hearing are the same pitch shifting ascensions I know and love from Satriani. Quite frankly, I’m starting to get really annoyed by the absence of innovation and differentiation.
By this point in the album, I’m still struggling with the notion of whether or not I should continue listening as a critic or as a casual listener. So I test out the latter, and begin to find myself smiling as I get swept up into the emotionally-stirring “You Can Fly”. Beautifully simple and well-articulated melodic lines command the soundscape with such ease that it becomes utterly hypnotic, making it effortless to get lost in the sweet sounds, strumming acoustics and divine guitar leads. Then “Dead in Memphis” kicks in and bursts my blissful musical bubble…
Again I find myself asking why – and what – came over Shouse when he was writing this material. Perhaps this is his cry for attention from the guitar community to recognize his virtuosity? Or maybe it’s meant to be some sort of guitarist handbook chalked-full of every technique you should sonically use within the span of an hour? I don’t know. Whatever the rationale was, by the end of the album, it just becomes too easy to fling all these accusations in his general direction, to write off this CD as another example of why the instrumental guitar community desperately needs to branch out and starting trying some different musical flavours in this diverse, 21st century of music.
Now, I’m going to say something that completely and utterly contradicts everything I’ve just said: I like this album. Despite the fact that I’m standing in strong judgment of Shouse’s work, I’m conflicting in saying: Alone on the Sun rightfully deserves to sit alongside the works of the guitar gods of this world. No, I’m not being held up by gunpoint, because Shouse’s playing is truly immaculate, and well, he’s among the few instrumental guitarists who have finally ensured that the production and band musicianship has leapt from ‘supporting’ to ‘playing with’ the lead guitarist (a truly miraculous achievement worthy of celebration). Through this lens, hands down, Shouse has excelled at his craft, creating an album that any instrumental guitar purist will drool over for years to come. And as much as I hate to say it, it’d be indecent to assign anything less than a 9.0 out of 10 to Alone on the Sun.
The Verdict: 9.0/10
For more information, please visit Shouse's official website.
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