California Guitar Trio
Karate Body Records & Inner Knot
Genres: Acoustic, minimalist, progressive instrumental rock
RIYL: Steve Reich, Andreas Kapsalis/Goran Ivanovic, John Fahey
If Robert Fripp was your guitar teacher, it’s very likely that you’re a very accomplished guitarist. And California Guitar Trio (CGT) are no exception; Bert Lams, Paul Richards, and Hideyo Moriya have been going strong for over 19 years and will surprise very few with Andromeda, their latest recorded effort. Point of interest being, that this is CGT‘s first record to feature absolutely no covers, and the original works are stacked with a slew of improvisational pieces.
The trio often performs live with three acoustic guitars, as their technical mastery is what has wowed audiences over the years. But on Andromeda, they allow themselves to use as much of the studio as possible. There’s plenty of effects (perhaps paying attention to their prog roots and King Crimson connection), atmospheric keyboard textures (also called “pads,” very appropriate for Andromeda), electric guitars, bass, and even percussion. This helps keep the original compositions interesting. Tony Levin of King Crimson joins as a guest musician on the record, as he has in previous albums, which is a nice touch.
The minute the 10/8 lick of opener “Cathedral Peak” opens, you might think you have a modern punk or rock riff, but then they disappear into their progressive rock licks and open a brand new soundscape. Very seemly, considering this album commemorates the 20th anniversary of the Hubble Telescope. There’s plenty of fantastic licks here, some masterful lead playing, and keyboard swells accenting at just the right moments. The chordal structure itself is another testament to the abilities of Lams, Richards, and Moriya. Just when the listener thinks they know where it’s going next, the trio throws another curveball.
Only “Cathedral Peak” and “Portland Rain” feature any real percussion on the album (“Hazardous Z” does feature shakers, but very briefly). That presents no issues here though; the acoustic/fingerstyle purists will find plenty to like considering that the trio fills in the void left by the lack of other instruments by rhythmically strumming and filling in each other’s space in a very well-thought out manner. What they may dislike, though, is the overuse of effects and electric guitars.
The power of the group is on full display when it’s just the three of them, especially on the improvisational pieces, which are just a tad too short. Here the group excels and the songs are just so well-done, that maybe they should’ve let the record button go and did it all improv. The trio wander without being too noodly and are able complement each other brilliantly. There may be a lot of effects here, but it’s really not so much a bother for those that aren’t the purists (as mentioned in the previous paragraph). “Improv 1” definitely ends up a little on the cheesy side, falling somewhere between “new-age music for infomercial” and “stripped down Spaghetti-western ending credits roll.”
The hands-down standout of this album is “Portland Rain,” which has a foot firmly planed in the John Fahey/Leo Kottke camp. There’s so much light and airy movement in this, that it just glides in your ears. The strings come in over-top and the piece changes dynamically. Continually shifts in direction cause the listener to stand up and take notice. Hi-hats appear out of the distance, and before you know it, a whole ensemble has emerged from where there were only three. Once again, contemplating where the song going is an exercise in futility unless you were a prodigal student of Fripp as these guys were with all of these chromatic shifts in typical chord structures. “Portland Rain” is a very interesting and powerful piece indeed.
There’s a heavy Steve Reich connection on pieces like “Improv 8: Layered Circulation,” and “Andromeda,” which at times sounds similar to Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint.” There’s a country western feel to the well-suited title of “Middle of TX,” lending itself to slide guitar and even some whammy pedal action. Another great standout is the middle-eastern influenced “Hazardous Z,” which will remind fingerstyle fans of players like Andreas Kapsalis and Goran Ivanovic. You won’t find Andreas or Kaki King’s percussive rhythms played on the body of the guitar here though; the trio relies heavily on their compositional muscles to carry the piece instead of high-flying guitar acrobatics. This can be a detriment if you’re looking for someone similar to the aforementioned guitar heroes Kapsalis and King, but there’s plenty of goodness to be found here.
Take for example the pentatonic-sounding “Chacarea,” which features malleted percussion that sounds like either a xylophone or vibraphone. It’s just one of those “ooh” moments that you’ll get while listening to Andromeda that will leap out at you. There’s so much going on that it’s easy to get lost in all of the playing and forget about all the great background bits.
The only real downfall on this record is that some of the pieces can start feeling the same; not in overall feel, but in a lot of the interplay that happens between the three highly skilled musicians. Long-time fans may also wonder why there were no covers here, but it’s a benefit, not a bummer. Musicians can be Youtube wonders by doing an interesting version of a well-known (or unknown) song, but in order to be taken seriously in this business, you have to rely on more than just a gimmick, even if it’s a really good one. California Guitar Trio does a great job here, although they have the talent to stand out even more from the pack on previous releases.
Congratulations on nearly 20 years in the biz, fellas. Let’s hope you continue to age like a fine wine.
1. Cathedral Peak
2. Turn of the Tide
4. Improv IX
5. Hazardous Z
7. Improv VII
8. Middle of TX
9. Improv VIII – Layered Circulation
10. Portland Rain
11. Improv I