On ‘Sly Guitar’, however he returns to (and lays into) his main instrument with a sharp-clawed and swaggering stylishness. It’s the kind of performance that suggests he’s ripped the tail-fin off a 1950s Cadillac and carved a new guitar from it. Things are different this time. In some respects, the key to appreciating ‘Sly Guitar’ is knowing about John’s participation in a 2007 art prank, when he helped to fake a lost Hendrix rendition of the Welsh national anthem. While this particular stunt got his playing onto ‘Newsnight‘ – and was originally a joke about co-opting celebrities into random causes – viewed from here, it’s as much about the puckish and gleeful enjoyment which John gets out of playing guitar. Aspects of Ellis wit might show up on the records he’s worked on (qv. the intuitive bite of those Hammill albums, his thoughtful tricks with Smith, or the raw horse-laughs in his own rare solo songs), but a sense of liberated fun doesn’t always make it across. On ‘Sly Guitar’ it does.
I said “player’s album” – I’m also suggesting that this is the record on which John Ellis finally lets it all hang out. That’s a little misleading. Discreetly virtuosic yet always understated, John’s technique is marked out by the lean, sharp economy he’s learned from years of punk and art-rock. There are also plenty of examples of his taste for bouncing around inside delay units, and for the blocky synthwork and drum loops explored on 2008’s ‘Map of Limbo’. The music’s also liberally slathered with John’s beloved EBow sustainer, transforming notes into assorted hoots and stuttering violin chugs, or pulling them out into taffee-lengths.
These in turn blend in with ideas from all over the place. Fun notwithstanding, John’s art-school training consistently underlies his current approach (one track, with all irony intact, is called I Remember Futurism). He picks up odds-and-ends from the fashions and fads he’s seen pass by and reinterprets them with a playful magpie interest. The results blend an edgy and brittle flair with fastidious design, offset with a mischievous, practical form of musical adapt-and-reclaim.
Many of the tunes on ‘Sly Guitar’ have much in common with old pop-instrumental albums. There are tinges of Joe Meek and of perky surf-guitar capsules from the ’60s; and of those meticulous prog-tinged jingles from the ’70s. But this is just part of an overall collage effect which plucks inspiration from Hendrix, Hank Marvin and John Williams, from Robert Fripp and John Martyn; even from the likes of Fred Frith and Henry Kaiser. It also suggests that over the years John has copped a listen to everything from ‘No Pussyfooting’ and ‘Temple Head’ to On-U Sound and Moby. At the least, he’s caught their echoes as they’ve seeped through airwaves or were circulated alongside technology.
Certainly John’s thinking hard about latterday pop and accessibility; insistent club beats and nods to old crowd-pleasers drive much of the album. Pieces like Levitation and the eleven-minute title track sit on funk grooves with sleek flicks of rhythm guitar and curved, humming chromium lead lines. Snappily and space-ily rendered, the latter are recorded close enough to hear the speaker cones jumping and flattening while wellings of EBow sustain stack up behind like a pile of moonlit clouds. In the chop’n’chat of Farud Gets Electricity, John mixes a Latin loop and a dash of Stray Cats rockabilly into the recipe. Futuro’s leisurely boom-bat, wood-clack beat and clipped industrial framing recall a slimline version of Tackhead’s industrial hip-hop. Making the most of the album’s pop-up digital production sheen, it’s fleshed out by jawharp synth boings and fake horn stabs; its smoulder-point guitar lines hanging in the middle distance like burning ropes.
The beats may be familiar, but the tweaked and ruffled electrophonic timbres which John uses to build up the tunes are less so. Pedalo is as rhythmic as anything else on the record (gliding atop a cavernous trip-hop loop and cracking dub snare) but its body is made up of a mongrel set of slotted-in guitar voices – fanfare tones of firefly and conch; power-growls of distorted fuzz; a pitch-shifted shrill of parade melody teetering on top. All of these come together in spite of themselves, an ill-matched platoon who’ve learned to march in step. Under a skywriting blast of EBow sustain, I Remember Futurism interweaves a rippling set of arpeggios, passing them between a calm sky-blue organ and a guitar which sounds like a harp made of iron girders.
Embedded deep in the mix of the latter are the tinkling, caught-up accents of Brazilian cymbals and bells, and other pieces probe even deeper into worldbeat. Walking in the footsteps of Jon Hassell’s Fourth World Music, and of Transglobal Underground, John brews up vividly staged polycultural blends in which the frowning lines between ethnology and fraudulence, sympathy and exploitation might perhaps blur into irrelevance. His cyborg guitar tones counterpoint the eerie ornamented leaps of the Middle Eastern music he sources, undercutting its spiritual passion with impressionist sound-builds recalling insect swarms, oppressive heat, or the spine-crawling sense of secret surveillance. Hollowing out a Nile processional (on Don’t Be Misled By Your Eyes), he repacks it with drilling mosquito sounds, duetting Arabian slide lines and choral synths. The leisurely Levantine trip-hop of Flies elevates a souk-call vocal sample like a dreamy kite, but then subtly pollutes it with hovering swarms of static guitar buzz.
These last are much like the withering drones employed by Robert Fripp on ‘Exposure’ back in 1979, painting threatening sonic portraits of decaying industrial landscapes. You could only speculate as to whether John’s applying these same ominous atmospherics to the torn cities of the Arab spring; the idea hangs heavy. Initially The Bowl Maker of Lhasa (framed by temple bells and further baleful Frippish insect buzzes and pitch-collapses) sounds as if it’s going to do something similarly politicized for Tibet. However, it rapidly returns to clear hip-hop and funk sources – the sleek dancing duel between stinging clean guitar and EBow whistle, the playful way it lifts and reshapes a sly quote from ‘Freddie’s Dead’ in the middle of its drum-machine swing. While there are a few left-field touches (such as a timbral shift which refracts the familiar street beats into something with a twist of copper and stained glass), perhaps it’s better just to enjoy the imaginative, enthusiastic sound-painting; and not to over-freight the pieces with too much extra meaning.
The remaining tracks, though, bypass the club beats for a deeper exploration of John’s textural art-rock side. The brief roundabout of Echoplexing presents a bone-and-wood clatter of choppily-strummed flamenco guitar: echoing off to the sides of the soundfield, it joins stinging treble guitar lines and zipping insect sounds, stitched together by a child-chant organ part. The loop-and-splay Infanta shows John at his purest both as player and as music processor. Dialling up a sparkling silvery electric guitar tone, he begins the tune with Spanish classical inflections nestled in a sharp snappy reverb before abruptly leaving them to pulse and circle inside a loop-hang while he gets on with other business. He goes on to juggle a section of Hendrix jinks and transfigured rock’n’roll quotes; a countrified oud tone; elegant touches of shading, slurring and EBow elisions; a razor buzz bouncing in the background.
Elsewhere, March Of The Kitchen Taps floats a cluster of hovering, uneasy guitar parts (floats, wails and squeals) against swishing electronics like ventilation fan-blades, and against massed samples of metallic taps and bangs which flutter, slice and nail the pulse down. Cue jokes about everything-and-the-kitchen-sink: Crow On A Dying Dog eggs these on further, blending even more twiddling kitchen metals with a bagful of plastic electronics – bass twangs, burbling random-pitched vocalise, synthesized big-band swing and blaring horn-guitar parts. As a flight of sampled rooks flap past, it sounds like a weird and wilful collision between suitcase synth-pop and bleak mediaeval soundtracks.
It’s these particular pieces, in fact, that seal both the fate and triumph of ‘Sly Guitar’. Forks and taps aside, it is a kitchen-sink album: one which flea-jumps enthusiastically between slick beats and toy noises, easy funk and experimental chop-suey, clippable music and idiosyncratic personal sketches. John may have finally turned in his “player’s” album, but even this far along in the game he refuses to play it straight. Dipping in and out of formalism and fooling around, coursing around plug-ins and unravellings, he’s turned in an album which celebrates and fans out his plurality as a musician. Having mastered a humble, low-key chameleonic wilfulness – in which the appropriate art and the immediate idea directly shapes the method – he’s let it become part of him, even when he’s flexing free.
John Ellis: ‘Sly Guitar’
Chanoyu Records, CHA002
Released: 6th May 2013
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