REVIEW – Tony Harn: ‘Lifebox’ album, 1999 (“settle into the music’s bright and rapid embrace”)

24 Jul
Tony Harn: 'Lifebox'

Tony Harn: ‘Lifebox’

Since striking out on his own with ‘From The Inside‘ in 1997, Warringtonian guitarist Tony Harn has gone from strength to strength. It’s not that ‘Lifebox’ is all that different from its predecessor. It’s the same recipe of glittering, admirably economical rock guitar arrangements backed up by simple keyboard sounds and lightly-cymballed percussion programming – the sort of thing that would have made Harn a hero of British instrumental rock in the 1970s, or even the ’80s. In the late ’90s, it makes him more of a finely-tuned curio. A guilty pleasure.

Still, being out-of-step with the times has little to do with your innate value; and Tony Harn’s got plenty of that. His concept of melodic rock moving towards a jazz vocabulary has had to pass through a Manchester filter first. There’s a lot of meticulousness and post-industrial reserve here, an underlying balance of sounds and patterns that’s got more to do with Factory-style Futurism than feet-on-monitors and flailing hair. Not that Harn’s cover photo – the purposefully-shaven skull and meaningful gaze – shows hair to flail anyway.

In a nutshell, Tony Harn is what Joe Satriani might have been if he’d had Durutti Column’s sensibilities. His full-blooded melody-metal tone, his tunefulness and his sweet tooth for rock romanticism is reined in by Northern English economies on gesture and gush. Except for a solitary Van Halen moment – a short-lived explosion of devil fingers called Reaction:Release (In One Motion) – all is controlled and thoughtful. Layers of staccato echoed phrasing and delicate flat-picked motifs interplay with tuneful, assured lead lines. Harn’s guitars can chatter and circle busily, or pine away in expressive overdriven wails, all without letting the music lose its well-suspended balance. It can be as dignified as fine civic architecture, or it can roll like a landscape of green English hills. Pastoral, but never pastel; surprisingly serene, but not soporific with it.

And (if all of this isn’t starting to sound too cute) proggy without being boggy. Since the sometimes-perfunctory tunes of ‘From The Inside’, Harn’s developed a well-deserved confidence in taking on longer-form compositions. The fifteen-minute, multi-phase Reaction:Repeat (In Six Motions) bubbles with understated invention – it’s a drawn-out, trance-y rockscape of shifting heroic tunes and dance pulses, bouncing off the same constellations as Porcupine Tree did on ‘Voyage 34’. Split The Sketch jumps from sleepy church music (cavernous swells, sweet-dream melody and the chink and whisper of string noise) into the sort of split-metred riffing and racing arpeggios that Steve Hackett would’ve been happy to set his name to. Blue Blazes doesn’t go for length, but for shimmering detail, weaving tiny repetitive phrases into sky-written spirals around an airborne ripple of synth.

Even if his silvery jazz-inflected chording doesn’t quite qualify these efforts as fusion, Harn’s push towards jazz is becoming easier to distinguish. You can hear him trying out conversations with the themes in Eve Of Obligation; and if you listen beyond the diamante guitars on Pseudotalk, you’ll hear a pretty, melting tune that wants to sit down with a jazz quintet and make friends. But if Harn does move into that world, it shouldn’t be at the expense of the straightforward and joyful way he expresses his melodies – the folkiness of Last Town, the wedding bell tumble of Twelve Years, or how his romantic heart sits self-evidently on his sleeve for Forgotten Summer as his guitars and bass court each other. It shouldn’t be at the expense of digressions into haunting soundscaping such as Dark Age; in which, through organ drift and dreaming guitar sculptures, a girl’s guilt-stricken voice murmurs “I never used to think about it before.”

This, after all, is that rare breed of rock guitar album – one which you play not to worship at the Church of Guitar but to settle into the music’s bright and rapid embrace, and to lean back into it. ‘Lifebox’. A good name for such an unassuming package, spilling out such fertile enthusiasm.

Tony Harn: ‘Lifebox’
Tony Harn, THCD2 (no barcode)
CD-only album
Released: 1999

Buy it from:
Limited availability – contact Tony Harn for information.

Tony Harn online:
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One Response to “REVIEW – Tony Harn: ‘Lifebox’ album, 1999 (“settle into the music’s bright and rapid embrace”)”

  1. Dann Chinn July 24, 2012 at 1:25 am #

    The second Tony Harn review, from 1999. Several more to come in due course, but now it’s time to catch up with present-day releases for a while.

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