A guitar at the service of the “fourth world”. Steve Tibbetts on #neuguitars #blog #SteveTibbetts
I’ve never talked about Steve Tibbetts here on my blog neuguitars.com. A serious lack that the recent double-cd anthology easily allows to fill. In 2022, the ECM released “Hellbound Train: An Anthology”. This double cd covers his entire four-decade career with the label, with 27 tracks, neatly divided between acoustic and electric.
In my discoteque it is found next to the humble and spiritual Northern Son (1981), played with only the percussion accompaniment of his companion Marc Anderson. Northen Song is a bit too “atmospheric” and indulgent an album for my taste. He indulges in descriptivism (Big Wind), transcendental meditation (Form), the arcane and the supernatural (the long Nine Doors suite), with an acoustic guitar that sways between bluegrass, reverberations and a touch of new age.
But who is Steve Tibbetts? Tibbetts is an American guitarist, composer and producer. His stylistic code seems to express itself best in the creation of exotic and urban soundscapes, offering an intuitively receptive approach to sound creation. Tibbetts plays guitars, synthesizers and percussion instruments, using the recording studio as another musical instrument. His music intertwines elements of avant-garde improvisation, jazz, rock, ambient and his interpretation of global popular traditions. His acclaimed series of intermittent releases for ECM began with the Northern Song acoustics of 1982. The panoramic Big Map Idea of 1989 made it to the new age charts, while The Fall of Us All of 1994 garnered rave reviews from indie rock. and jazz. In 1997 he published Chö, the first of two collaborations celebrated worldwide with Sister Choying Drolma; the second, Selwa appeared in 2004. 2010’s Natural Causes made it to the jazz album charts, while 2018’s Life Of entered the Top Five.
And now, in 2022, ECM has released this “Hellbound Train: An Anthology.” I think the ECM did a good job of sorting by separating the electrical aspect from the acoustic one. The first CD, the electric one, is, in fact, much more interesting for me, with anticipatory sounds of Scandinavian nu jazz. Tibbetts demonstrates a remarkable mastery of the instrument and a great ability to create sound scenarios of considerable extension and beauty. Much less interesting is the second cd, entirely acoustic, where in my opinion one winks too much at an excessively contemplative music imbued with new age. His acoustic guitar playing is slow and crystalline, velvety and thoughtful, while that of John Fahey, an artist I have read often approached, is more spontaneous and raw. This new age aspect does not convince me very much. I confess that the popularity and success still enjoyed by the new age remain a mystery to me. Despite the widespread success of this static and lazy music, I cannot find any element of genius and serious innovation in it.
It’s true, Tibbetts is an excellent acoustic guitarist, (very nice his version of Black Mountain Side) and he knows his stuff, but I can’t find a depth in apparently linear music that seems to me more the result of a series of overlapping surfaces. I cannot identify an evolutionary progression, much less a temporal one, but perhaps this is the basis of Tibbetts’ success: his music is imaginative, ideal soundtracks of nature documentaries, with long tracking shots in wide angle on wide wooded valleys. His guitar expresses a sort of archaic, meditative, transcendental return to a lost innocence, to a desire for greater simplicity, to a lower information and decision-making load. This collection can be both a good starting point to explore his musical poetics, then continuing to listen to his record production, and an effective way to create your own quick opinion on his artistic personality, without then feeling the need to deepen. The choice will be strictly individual, depending on the sensitivity that each of us is able to express towards these so ethereal music.