Published on 30th June 2022
Nick Fletcher – The Cloud Of Unknowing
Wonderfully vibrant and expressive second solo album from virtuoso prog rock and jazz fusion guitarist, Nick Fletcher – setting the bar even higher on this release.
When Steve Hackett, no less, states that “Nick Fletcher is probably the best jazz rock guitarist in the UK. I consider him an absolute star”, it is reason enough to check out his latest solo album, The Cloud of Unknowing. Add to that his phenomenal guitar playing in The John Hackett Band, both live and in the studio since 2015, and you have a musician currently at the top of his game.
Hailing from Sheffield, Nick started playing guitar at 12 years of age. Since leaving music college in 1981, he has played guitar and written music professionally. He is a classical guitar teacher and also a solo artist and session musician in a range of bands of all musical genres, exploring his love of jazz fusion, prog rock and classical music. From 1991, Nick largely focused on classical guitar playing, arranging and composing, building a fine reputation as a result of his classical compositions and recordings. It was in this period that Nick and John formed the Fletcher/Hackett guitar and flute duo, receiving some great reviews from the likes of Classical Guitar magazine in the process.
However, in 2015 Nick returned to performing on electric guitar alongside John in his band, giving him the opportunity to show off his excellent jazz fusion and prog rock credentials. Nick and John produced the well-received Beyond the Stars album in 2018, whilst in 2021 Nick released his debut solo album, Cycles of Behaviour, to positive reviews. With The Cloud of Unknowing I think Nick has created his most coherent and consistent electric guitar-led album to date – something which will have much to offer followers of instrumental progressive rock, with well-pitched jazz fusion influences.
The freshness and vibrancy in Nick’s music is reflected in his eclectic range of influences. Growing up in the classic prog rock era, it is not surprising that the music of Genesis, Yes, Focus, Camel, U.K. and Pink Floyd have played a part in creating the musical landscape he inhabits. He cites David Gilmour, Jan Akkerman, Steve Vai, Jeff Beck and Steve Hackett as significant influences in his playing style. However, the precision of his classical guitar training is also there to hear in the music’s harmony, structure and form. Finally, the jazz fusion influences of the likes of Return to Forever, John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Bill Bruford and not least Allan Holdsworth, are steeped deeply within the texture of the expressive, free-flowing playing.
Regarding the influence of Allan Holdsworth, Nick states that it is less a question of copying his style (“He was always 10 steps ahead of everyone else – something we can only aspire to,” notes Nick, rather modestly), and more a case of sharing his approach to improvisation and constructing passionate, lyrical and melodic structures within his compositions.
The new album sees Nick supported by some quality guest artists – most of them who appeared on the debut album. Dave Bainbridge (Lifesigns, Strawbs and Iona amongst others) adds some wonderful keyboard and piano touches, while bassist Tim Harries (Bill Bruford’s Earthworks, Iona and Steeleye Span) and drummer Russ Wilson (Fragile, Genesis Visible Touch and the Book of Genesis) form a tight and complex rhythm section throughout. Caroline Bonnett once again helps create the musical soundscapes on the album with keyboards, sequencers and backing vocals. Although the album is largely instrumental, the vocals on two of the tracks are from a friend of Caroline’s called Stuart Barbour – a Christian-influenced musician in his own right. No space for the flute of John Hackett on the album on this occasion, but the acoustic guitar nicely fills those more gentle places in the compositions.
Nick says the album does have an underlying and interlinking mystical and spiritual concept to it. It relates to finding truth and enlightenment in our modern chaotic world. He draws on ideas from Greek mythology and mysticism and takes the listener, through music and lyrics, on an inner journey from darkness into light by facing our inner demons along the way. “It’s a kind of musical Dante’s Inferno!” Nick suggests. “Mythology has always been a way for man to understand the human psyche and explore our mind set – taking us to a place where we can confront our fears and search for our understanding of truth in a deeper way.”
The album title also alludes to Christian mysticism – as discussed by St John of the Cross amongst others – relating to the idea of being brave enough to surrender your mind and ego to the realm of “unknowing”, to see the true nature of God. The lyrics echo such spiritual ideas, but it is the changing tempo and style of the music that frames this inner journey very effectively.
Noticeably harder-edged and darker in style at times than the previous Cycles of Behaviour release, the album opens with Out of the Maelstrom (and perhaps alluding to coming out of the extended lockdown period). Starting with an unsettling, mysterious and chaotic burst of playing, the track settles into a wonderfully complex and frenetic slab of pure jazz fusion. Nick delivers some great guitar soloing, whilst also combining effortlessly with Dave’s Hammond organ, as the rhythm section twists and turns behind it all. There is a sparkle and brightness to the virtuoso playing and intricacy throughout.
Eyes of Persephone provides a lovely contrast, settling things down nicely. The sound is more tranquil and there is a rich smoothness to the warm, melodic guitar lines delivered by Nick. On this occasion it is the piano that intertwines with the guitar and Dave delivers a beautiful solo to match Nick’s emotional playing, whilst Tim and Russ keep it all grounded and flowing. A track to truly lose yourself in and an undoubted highlight.
The next five tracks form the Scenes from the Subconscious Mind suite, which is very much the heart of the album. We Need to Leave This Place… Right Now! is a short snippet of ambient street sounds, acting as an introduction to the powerful Pandemonium. It certainly rocks and has a prog-metal intensity. There is a busy, off-kilter and almost sinister feel to it, either side of some glorious, soaring guitar soloing. Nick shows he can ‘shred’ it with the likes of John Petrucci, Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, if the mood takes him.
The Cloud of Unknowing, Parts 1, 2 and 3 takes the music to a more spiritual place, with its tolling church bells, organ and dreamy keyboard chords producing an almost monastic atmosphere. Stuart’s contemplative vocals have almost an avant-garde edge to them, as well as an interesting meter that Nick complements with strong guitar melodies. Nick’s lyrics emphasise the mystical journey the album is taking:
Save me from darkness, finding some truth
Each step I take will lead me home
A cloud of unknowing, will change the way I see”
The track concludes with more improvised guitar flights of fancy over a lush keyboard structure that will satisfy any prog music listener. It gently fades, with Nick’s whispered Latin taking us to a place where our fears need to be confronted. Awakening the Hydra sets the scene and has a suitably dark, cinematic atmosphere, with simple guitar patterns building up tension, which then take us through to Dance of the Hydra. Nick returns to a prog-metal guitar style, ably supported by some dynamic drumming by Russ, navigating every changing time signatures from 5/8 through to 11/8, as psychological battle commences. Some evocative, rippling keyboard sounds and backing harmonies maintain the otherworldliness of the suite and signal the end of the conflict and the symbolic chopping off of the Hydra’s head.
Arcadia is the perfect contrast to the intensity of the suite. Beautiful, Steve Hackett-like acoustic guitar weaves a feeling of calm and tranquillity, with pastoral Wind and Wuthering-type keyboards. A change to breathe and take stock.
The Paradox, Part 1 and 2 begins immediately with Stuart’s vocals touching upon the paradox of change and the need to embrace it. “Everything is change, nothing ever stays”, and yet “The paradox of change, some things will stay the same”. A touch of Peter Hammill at times in the intonation to these ears? Nick revels in more vibrant and engaging playing, but it is the keyboards and synthesisers which drive the song forward effectively. Dave’s synth solo is a true highlight and the guitar solo that follows is a real tour-de-force. The album ends with a gentle guitar coda and choir-like effects. We have been on quite a rollercoaster of a journey, from chaos to calm, and the fading closing notes reflect that very satisfyingly, with the overriding and hopeful message that “Love is a constant force, keeping this world on course.”
With The Cloud of Unknowing, Nick Fletcher has produced an ambitious, eclectic and musically stunning album that showcases his wonderful guitar virtuosity and compositional skills. Well supported by the other fine musicians, there is light and shade as well as changes in tempo and intensity throughout. Prog rock mixes seamlessly with jazz fusion and subtle classical touches to create a refreshing listening experience that is somehow fully cohesive around its central theme, despite its multi-faceted character. Nick has raised the bar further on this impressive release, so it is definitely time to check out “The best kept secret in British Prog”.
01. Out of the Maelstrom (5:28)
02. The Eyes of Persephone (7:27)
Scenes From The Subconscious Mind (suite) (23:22)
03. We Need To Leave This Place… Right Now! (0:20)
04. Pandemonium (6:00)
05. The Cloud Of Unknowing, Parts 1, 2 and 3 (9:34)
06. Awakening The Hydra (1:55)
07. Dance Of The Hydra (5:33)
08. Arcadia (1:49)
09. The Paradox, Parts 1 and 2 (10:32)
Total Time – 48:38
Nick Fletcher – Electric, Acoustic & Slide Guitars
Caroline Bonnett – Keyboards & Sequencers, Backing Vocals
Dave Bainbridge – Hammond Organ (track 1), Piano (2), Synth (9)
Russ Wilson – Drums
Tim Harries – Fretted & Fretless Bass Guitar
Stuart Barbour – Vocals (tracks 5 & 9)
Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 6th June 2022
My thanks go to John Simms of Progzilla Radio’s The Flight of the Sky Pilot for additional insights.