Adrian Belew: Side One
Sound/Style: experimental electric guitar-based music
By Steve Morley
(UMCom)—There’s a phenomenon known as synesthesia (SIN-eh-STEE-zha), in which colors are perceived as sounds, or vice-versa. Though there isn’t a word for it yet, rare individuals like musical mad scientist Adrian Belew have a compounded version. Belew sees and hears sounds and colors simultaneously.
In an interview posted on his website, the artist recently explained that, while pursuing his new hobby of painting, he found the experience not unlike musical composition. One activity can easily influence the other, causing musical ideas to emerge as he paints. This concept goes a long way towards explaining the densely hued effect of Side One, the first in a trilogy of albums he’s completed for release in 2005.
In the same way that Pablo Picasso distinguished his work by abstracting human features, Belew uses the guitar here to express something only vaguely familiar to unsuspecting ears. Actually, he doesn’t limit this process to the guitar. Belew, who plays every instrument on most of the album, even uses his compositional process itself in the service of breaking down preconceptions about modern rock-based music.
This should hardly surprise anyone who is familiar with Belew’s work in King Crimson, a progressive rock band that specializes in intricate, angular mood pieces. While Belew has shown himself variously capable of melodic Beatlesque pop, ethnic fusion and maniacal goof-rock, he rarely repeats himself.
Here, he chops and channels King Crimson’s frenetic style, especially on the three tracks that feature bassist Les Claypool (Primus) and drummer Danny Carey (Tool). The trio’s mind-boggling ensemble work would suggest a six-armed industrial machine were it not for the humanity in Belew’s melodies and vocals and his oddly expressive guitar work (which sets these tracks apart from Crimson’s oft-foreboding sound). Even if he’s playing something that sounds like an epileptic episode—as he does frequently on this outing—it’s never mechanical.
Having said that, the notion of a seizure set to music will probably scare away everyone who rightfully should be scared. Those of you who are still here (and please move up towards the front, so the room doesn't seem so empty) need to know that this isn’t a delusional man wearing a rakishly-cocked beret and indulgently flinging paint at a canvas. Rather, he’s a creative powerhouse fashioning thoughtful modern art (though admittedly not for all comers) as well as making statements about art itself.
Since the musician’s more accessible attempts at record-making failed to substantially enlarge his fervent fan base, he’s gotten especially brave, which as often as not means you have little left to lose. His lyric approach here is minimalist, with some songs consisting of little more than a phrase or two. He says plenty in those few lines, though—
he alludes to the fate of a fringe-dweller like himself in "Under The Radar," matter-of-factly describes his application of available artistic devices in "Ampersand" and relies on one such favorite tool—alliteration—in "Elephants."
At first glance, the piece seems a companion to his 1982 song "The Lone Rhinoceros," which captured the pathos of a magnificent beast reduced to a curious caged attraction. In the context of the record, though, the words he uses to describe the pachyderm—"enslaved, ensnared, endangered, exploited"—are fitting symbols for the contemporary artist, whose venue for true originality in an increasingly commercialized world is eroding. To his credit, Adrian Belew fights back admirably against the media monster on Side One, in which he unhesitatingly follows his muse along unpaved pathways, full speed ahead.
Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.
This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of the United Methodist Church.