[Review] Allan Holdsworth: Hard Hat Area (1993)

This is what happens when you filter an electric guitar through a synthesizer and then filter them both through a calculus textbook.

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 more akin to the spikey complex stuff that Robert Fripp and Frank Zappa were making in the 90s 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 how much 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.

The Songs

1. Prelude (Allan Holdsworth/Steve Hunt) (1:35)
2. Ruhkukah (5:32)
3. Low Levels, High Stakes (9:03)
4. Hard Hat Area (6:03)
5. Tullio (5:59)
6. House of Mirrors (7:44)
7. Postlude (Allan Holdsworth/Steve Hunt/Skuli Sverrisson/Gary Husband) (5:28)

All songs written by Allan Holdsworth unless noted.

The Players

Allan Holdsworth (guitar & SynthAxe), Steve Hunt (keyboards), Gary Husband (drums), Skuli Sverrisson (bass guitar). Produced, engineered and mixed by Allan Holdsworth; additional engineering by Rejean, additional mixing by Gordon Davis.

The Pictures

Cover design by Ruri Fujita. Re-issue executive producer and graphics by Leonardo Pavkovic; liner notes by Barry Cleveland.

The Plastic

Released on compact disc in 1993 in the US (Restless, 77216) and France (Cream, CR-330).

  1. Re-released on remastered compact disc on May 15, 2012 in the US (Moonjune, MJR044).

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