Kronomyth 1.0: AURORA. There were a lot of people who lamented the loss of King Crimson, and it’s tempting to see the first U.K. album as a kind of Crimson Mark II. Bill Bruford and John Wetton had been half of that band, Eddie Jobson had replaced David Cross for some studio overdubs on the live U.S.A. and while Robert Fripp was irreplaceable, Allan Holdsworth was hardly a case of settling for less. The record does invite comparison to King Crimson, but Frank Zappa, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Jean-Luc Ponty also serve as reference points. In fact, there are several moments on here where the words “Ponty on steroids” come to mind. (Holdsworth, you may recall, had just come from playing on Ponty’s Enigmatic Ocean.) What’s unique about U.K. is that they’re not jazz-rock fusion in any sense that I understand the label. It’s almost as though the band took the musicianship and unpredictable twists and turns of Zappa (e.g., “Presto Vivace And Reprise”) and Ponty (“Time To Kill”) and drained all of the jazz out of it, leaving pure prog chops in its place. And it’s in that sense where the first U.K. album is groundbreaking, because it allowed future proggers to make highly complex, dynamic and mathematical music without leaning on jazz idioms to do it. There are a lot of prog bands in the 21st century that are making music that sounds like U.K. did thirty years ago. As much of a powerhouse album as this is, I do feel like it falls apart in spots as the band tries to mesh melodies, vocals and high-octane musicianship together. The closing “Nevermore” and “Mental Medication,” for example, probably would have worked better as instrumentals than extended songs. That said, the opening suite, “In The Dead of Night,” is classic prog—something I didn’t expect to encounter anymore in 1978—and “Thirty Years” is pretty amazing too. Until now, Eddie Jobson had been a peripheral (if popular) player in prog circles, but this album established him as a major creative force in the field. Unfortunately, the band began to fall apart soon after, with Bruford and Holdsworth leaving the fold (they would reappear later that year on Bruford’s Feels Good To Me). What remains on this first record is a sweet, wonderful alignment of stars that one can happily exonerate for the future crimes of Asia.
Kronomyth 17.0: SYNTHPHONY IN A FLAT. In the cacophony of guitar gods small and sinister there is no shortage of aggravating and imaginary soundtracks, most the product of febrile minds trapped in small places with too much alcohol and a nasty propensity to tinker. A category under which, you might think, an album such as FLATTire would equitably fall, and yet this is really far better than I expected. Recorded almost exclusively on a synthaxe run through a pair of Yamaha synthesizer modules (the portable TX7 and portcullis TX816), this is in many ways Holdsworth’s most expressive and overtly symphonic synthaxe recording to date. The longer pieces, such as “Snow Moon” and “Don’t You Know,” are almost classical in construct, suggesting synthesizer-painted tone poems. There are, of course, the usual maddeningly mathematical passages and a few jazzy excursions (two featuring Dave Carpenter quietly on acoustic bass), but it’s those classical works and the quiet beauty of songs like “So Long” and “Please Hold On” that stay with me. While Holdsworth himself has indicated that the songs were his attempts to create soundtrack music, it’s not outside the realm of reason to postulate that a few of the pieces were inspired by his recent divorce. Despite personal adversity and a paucity of equipment, or perhaps because of it, Allan Holdsworth the human being emerges more clearly here. One rarely uses the word “sentimental” in an Allan Holdsworth record review, but I’d say that aptly captures the mood of this album. FLATTire still has its share of spiky passages and strange ideas (“The Duplicate Man,” “Eeny Meeny”), though fewer than most Holdsworth albums. This is the sound of a man alone with his thoughts and his synthaxe, which, as it turns out, make for surprisingly good company.
Kronomyth 20.0: AHMOK TIME. You are about to enter another dimension; a dimension not only of guitars, bass, drums and keyboards, but of some weird device called the SynthAxe. The “A” in Synthaxe may or may not be capitalized; it’s not really important right now. You’re going on a journey into a wondrous land of imagination and twelve-fingered proficiency. Next stop, the AHZONE. If you’re not familiar with the solo music of Allan Holdsworth, you’re about to have two hours of it crammed into your cranium over two discs, with the caveat that some possibly essential pink stuff may start leaking out of one ear about halfway into the first disc. The truth is, Against The Clock is more Holdsworth than some people can process. Those people, by the way, are to be pitied, smiled at and perhaps politely curtsied to, but under no circumstances are they to be engaged in serious musical conversation. For the rest of us, Against The Clock makes manifest the many sides of Allan Holdsworth’s musical genius. Well, the two sides actually: the fiery electric prog/fusion of his first fruits, and the mathematical, sometimes surprisingly lyrical fusion of his ripeness. The songs I hadn’t heard before (“Spokes,” “Tokyo Dream,” “Eeny Meeny,” “Sphere of Innocence”), floored me. The songs that floored me when I first heard them (“Rukukha,” “Low Level High Stakes,” “Postlude,” “Devil Take The Hindmost”), impressed me even more. Divided into two volumes (Guitar and Synthaxe), I expected to enjoy Volume One more because I was never 100% on board with the whole Synthaxe thing. At least with the guitar, I could understand the instrument that was making all of that incomprehensible music. The Synthaxe seemed like an unnecessary, extra layer of incomprehensibility to me. Yet listening to the volumes side by side, it’s clear that Holdsworth could do things with the Synthaxe that he couldn’t with the electric guitar: fluttering notes, softer soundscapes, a horn-like voice that let you isolate and examine it in a way that you couldn’t with the guitar. The Synthaxe also allowed the superlative players who Holdsworth surrounded himself with to rise to the surface. Fans had waited a long time for a compilation of Allan Holdsworth’s solo recordings. Against The Clock proves worth the weight.
One of the most technically proficient electric guitarists in the realm of progressive rock/fusion and an avowed perfectionist, Allan Holdsworth worked as a guitar hero for hire with many of the 1970s leading jazz fusion artists including Nucleus, Soft Machine, Gong, U.K., Bill Bruford, Jean-Luc Ponty and Tony Williams Lifetime. Holdsworth never stuck around long with any of them, moving from one group to another before establishing a solo career in the 1980s. Despite some major-label support in the mid 80s, his mathematical approach to music confounded mainstream listeners, even as he collected the praise of more popular guitarists like Frank Zappa and Eddie Van Halen.
On Atavachron (1986), Holdsworth introduced the SynthAxe, a guitar-styled MIDI controller that used strings and frets to activate the sounds on a synthesizer (Holdsworth seems to have preferred Oberheim synthesizers for this purpose). He never lost interest in the instrument, and most of his subsequent studio albums found him splitting time between the electric guitar and the SynthAxe. Perhaps because of his superlative and meticulous style, Holdsworth has always attracted great drummers; in addition to Bruford and Williams, his own albums have featured the likes of Gary Husband, Chad Wackerman and Vinnie Colaiuta. Holdsworth has also collaborated on occasion with former Nucleus pianist Gordon Beck, most recently on None Too Soon (1996), which featured two original Beck compositions alongside covers of mostly jazz songs.
When not playing the guitar (which would seem to increasingly be the case these days given his limited output in the 21st century), Holdsworth is an avid cyclist and brewmeister; he even produced and marketed his own beer pump, dubbed “The Fizzbuster.” In 2010, he recorded a tribute to Tony Williams with Alan Pasqua, Wackerman and Yellowjackets’ Jimmy Haslip, titled Blues For Tony. [Note: Allan passed away on April 15, 2017.]
Kronomyth 3.0: I.O.U.K. Following his short-lived and doomed dalliance with the majors, Allan Holdsworth returned to the realm of independent records and released the highly listenable Metal Fatigue. The album credited I.O.U. (which now consisted of Chad Wackerman, Jimmy Johnson and Paul Williams) as the backing band, and featured a mix of instrumental and vocal songs that invited comparison to Holdsworth’s earlier stint in the supergroup format, U.K. Holdsworth’s guitars, however, take center stage from the beginning. He manages to get at least a dozen distinct sounds out of his guitar, ranging from soft and jazzy keyboard tones to squonky prog guitar solos. Flim & The BB’s Jimmy Johnson is an excellent choice on bass, and ex-Zappa alum Chad Wackerman provides typically challenging rhythms, but you won’t be able to take your ears off of Holdsworth for more than a few seconds as you alternate between asking yourself “Is that actually a guitar?” and “Can a human being really play the guitar that fast?” Although he never played with Frank Zappa, it’s amazing to me how much Holdsworth sounds like Adrian Belew, Mike Keneally and Steve Vai (although I’m guessing it’s really the other way around). The opening “Metal Fatigue,” for example, sounds a lot like something Mike Keneally would have concocted, with its rock-music-turned-on-its-head approach. And about a minute into “Devil Take The Hindmost,” there’s that familiar Adrian Belew animal wail making an appearance. The second side of music is dominated by the fourteen-minute “The Un-Merry-Go-Round,” which offers slightly classical variations on a theme and provides the album’s most challenging listening. Although never destined for wide commercial acceptance, Metal Fatigue will appeal to those prog rock aficionados who would gladly burn a candle to the greatest living guitarist at any particular moment, which would be Allan Holdsworth for a good twenty minutes of these moments. As the last of AH’s albums before he fell under the spell of the SynthAxe, Metal Fatigue is one of the more amazing guitar-centered prog records you’re likely to encounter. If you dug U.K., you owe it to yourself to check this one out.
Kronomyth 13.0: SOME NEW TUNES. This is an album of mostly jazz covers (plus two new songs from Gordon Beck), the impetus for which was a version of “Michelle” recorded in 1993 with the same quartet on Come Together: Guitar Tribute To The Beatles. Although the mathematical fusion of his last album is still in evidence (“Countdown,” “How Deep Is The Ocean”), None Too Soon also showcases the guitarist’s softer side (“Nuages,” “Very Early”) and allows Holdsworth to indulge some of his tenor saxophone fantasies (via the guitar and Synthaxe) on material from John Coltrane and Joe Henderson. Beck plays the role of collaborator, composer and co-arranger, and the album might just as easily have been credited to the pair. Although a previous familiarity with some of these songs provides a reference point for the listener, Holdsworth admittedly made few concessions in his approach to the music, preferring to interpret them in his own familiar idiom. Beck (and not Holdsworth) selected many of the songs to cover, and the guitarist approached them as original works. Holdsworth has always followed his own muse, even when he’s playing other people’s music. Not surprisingly, the interpretations are often highly original; you’ve probably heard The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” and Coltrane’s “Countdown” before, but not like this. That said, hearing Holdsworth put his unique stamp on songs like Joe Henderson’s “Isotope” and “Inner Urge” might be lost on all but jazz aficionados. Gary Willis and Kirk Covington (both of Tribal Tech) provide excellent support, and show the wisdom of bringing in a prefab rhythm section. As the last collaboration between Beck and Holdsworth, None Too Soon is a fitting way to say goodbye, by leaving their imprint on the music that came before them.
Kronomyth 12.0: CONSTRUKCION ARIA. This is the ninth solo album by Allan Holdsworth, which is about the only piece of useful contextual information I can give you, not having heard the first eight. I have a copy of Metal Fatigue around here somewhere which I’ll get around to listening to eventually, but for now my knowledge of the man comes from his short stints with Soft Machine, UK and Bill Bruford. On those albums, Allan Holdsworth struck me as a low-key guitarist who could light it up at will. His guitar solos were impossibly fast and fluid, and then he would recede into the background again until the next flash of lightning. Somewhere in the 80s, Holdsworth became enamored of a device called the SynthAxe that combined a synthesizer and a guitar. Now I know what you’re thinking: Why not just run a guitar through an effects processor? And the answer, of course, is because then you wouldn’t be able to whip out your SynthAxe and feed your inner level 6 Dwarven Myrmidon or whatever it is that compels someone to play a hybrid synthesizer/guitar in the first place. Before listening to Hard Hat Area, I expected it would sound like your typically stellar electric guitar fusion album, and it doesn’t for a couple of reasons: 1) the music is the kind of spikey complex stuff that Robert Fripp was making in the 90s rather than friendly fusion, and 2) Holdsworth plays the SynthAxe as much as the electric guitar, so that it often sounds like a quartet with two keyboardists (Steve Hunt being the other). The opening “Prelude” sets the stage for a standoffish selection of mathematical fusion: it’s dark, mysterious, dread-filled. There’s no denying that Holdsworth has mastered complexity and technique, but he’s a soloist more than a songwriter. “Low Levels, High Stakes” and “Tullio” are the album’s most approachable tracks; the rest of the material is alien, aggressive, dissonant. Lots of people buy latter-day King Crimson albums and seem to enjoy them, or at least enjoy telling other people they enjoy them, so there must be an audience for Hard Hat Area as well. It’s a difficult record, which means you’ll need a notepad to keep track of all the tonal shifts and intervallic leaps, but then you’ll have the pleasure of pointing out the tonal shifts and intervallic leaps to other people later (which, unless you’re wearing a Ring of Infinite Charisma, will be a short conversation). Adventurous listeners in the mood for complicated synthesizer/guitar fusion are encouraged to venture into Hard Hat Area (insofar as one wishes to encourage these people), but I wouldn’t start the journey here.