Last year, I wrote in glowing terms about Nick Fletcher’s second solo album, The Cloud of Unknowing. It was his most coherent and consistent electric guitar-led album to date, raising the bar even higher than his impressive solo debut, Cycles of Behaviour. I said at the time that he had produced an ambitious, eclectic and musically stunning album that showcased his wonderful guitar virtuosity and compositional skills, prog rock mixing seamlessly with jazz fusion and subtle classical touches to create a refreshing listening experience.
For those who haven’t discovered Nick Fletcher yet, he is a virtuoso classical and electric guitarist from Sheffield who is a member of The John Hackett Band. Described as “The best kept secret in British Prog”, Steve Hackett, no less, has stated, “Nick Fletcher is probably the best jazz rock guitarist in the UK. I consider him an absolute star.”
Well… if he raised the bar with the last album, then his latest, Quadrivium, has set it at Olympic heights. It is a musically sumptuous instrumental masterpiece of jazz/rock/prog fusion that flows beautifully from start to finish, with a real spiritual soul. Light and shade intermingle and stunning instrumental flights of fancy dazzle yet remain steadfastly grounded – never ever an exercise in shallow self-indulgence. Every note seems to mean something, and when supported by the exquisite drumming of the late Jeff Beck’s drummer Anika Nilles, keyboards from Caroline Bonnett and guest artist Dave Bainbridge (Lifesigns, Strawbs, Iona), and all founded on the solid bass guitar of Tim Harries (Bill Bruford, Iona), you have music to appeal beyond jazz/rock fusion aficionados, with a distinctive prog rock flavour at times.
Nick says that, “Quadrivium was the name Plato gave to the four noble arts: Mathematics, Geometry, Music and Astronomy. Each of the album’s titles reflects one or other of these, with the exception of music, as the album IS music. The album is meant to be listened to as a whole, like a suite. The tracks take the listener on a journey through the cosmos until our soul must leave this world, as we all must stand on the edge of time and let go of this dimension of time and space! The cover reflects the feeling that we have somehow appeared from nowhere out of the void and spend our lives either trying to find a way out or being content to just be. Either way, we are all reaching for the light.”
Without any vocals this time around, Nick’s music conveys the moods and emotions underpinning these spiritual and philosophical meanings, and when you allow yourself to be immersed in these rich and diverse soundscapes you realise how successful Nick and the band have been in painting these musical pictures. Elements of Eastern philosophies can be discerned by the album’s over-arching concept, and you could even image the music forming the soundtrack to the talks on birth, life and death of the famous English philosopher, Alan Watts.
Quadrivium starts where The Cloud of Unknowing left off. The first two tracks, A Wave on the Ocean of Eternity and Overture to the Cosmos, are both based upon harmonic constructs found in the end section of The Paradox (the final track of that earlier album). The second track is also a triumphant re-imaging of that final melody, played on acoustic guitar at the end of that earlier song. By doing so, Nick has created a unity and continuity between the two albums, giving a sense of familiarity for those who have heard that release.
I asked Nick about the themes behind the music to give a better understanding of the music as it unfolds.
“The opening and closing tracks also bookend the album very successfully. A Wave on the Ocean of Eternity focuses the listener’s attention on how life opens, rises and falls like a wave. Standing on the Edge of Time leaves the listener with a sense of quiet resignation that we all must face at the end of our lives. The music in between takes you on a journey which highlights the unity between those four noble arts. In particular, tracks like To the Stars We Shall Return and The Journey to Varanasi allude to the inner spiritual path of humanity, which is also part of the inter-connectiveness of the arts, science and spirituality.” The classical sub-titles certainly allude to the orchestral suite structure and cohesiveness of the whole album.
That is the background and thematic concept to Quadrivium, but what is the music like? Well, fans of the jazz/rock fusion of the likes of John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jeff Beck, Return to Forever, Bill Bruford’s Earthworks, Allan Holdsworth and even Pat Metheny will find the music a delight – but there are mainstream rock and progressive rock influences within the texture of the expressive, free-flowing playing, creating quite a uniqueness of character throughout.
A Wave on the Ocean of Eternity (prelude) begins the album atmospherically with soaring electric guitar soloing over a lush background of undulating waves of bowed guitar notes and motifs, which Nick calls his ‘angel vibe’ guitar sound. There is a serenity, and yet a restless edge within this dreamy soundscape – with the sound of gentle waves towards the end.
Overture to the Cosmos (overture), by contrast, opens majestically with bold urgency as the drums kick in to accompany some busy, driving guitar over stabbing keyboard chords from Caroline Bonnett and Tim Harries’ probing bass. It is a chaotic whirlwind of ‘Big Bang’ musical activity that builds steadily, through a more mellow midway bridge section, with a freshness and exuberance, before a final change to a soothing, peaceful and ordered conclusion.
We stay in space for the free-form jazz/rock fusion of Riding the Event Horizon (scene 1), and it is certainly an exhilarating ride around the menace of a black hole! Anika Nilles’s intricate drum patterns and changing tempo accompany the joyful, melodic and accessibly cool swagger of Nick’s guitar, over a rich foundation of organ and keyboards. Dave Bainbridge supplies some lovely, toe-tapping, modal jazz piano to savour before a return to the main theme. Nick really opens up the track with a wonderfully supercharged guitar solo later on that really rocks and climbs stratospherically, before the music gently eases down with some smoother tones to conclude.
The two short interludes, Ziggurat of Dreams, Parts 1 & 2 provide an oasis of reflective calm with Nick’s ‘angel vibe’ guitar mingling with electric piano to create a Vangelis-like template over which Nick weaves beautiful flights of fancy. Ziggurats were ancient Sumerian pyramid-like structures, supporting temples. Portals to another dimension or even the home of the gods, perhaps, built amongst the sand dunes – the music conjures up that ethereal wonder and timelessness perfectly.
The two interludes successfully sandwich two longer-form tracks that form the heart of the album and are simply stunning in their complexity and depth. The Fifth Parallel (scene 2) is a sumptuous musical creation, made from parallel fifth intervals to give a more modal and English-sounding composition. There is a beautifully flowing and dreamy feel to this track, with great ensemble interplay throughout. The drums dance and shuffle around the rich, resonating bass and keyboard wash, with numerous virtuoso guitar passages before the fade out. There is too much complexity and things going on to describe this music adequately in words – you just need to let it engulf you yourself.
Aphelion (scene 3) describes the furthest point from the Sun in the orbit of a planet or comet. The track is another jazz/rock fusion excursion and there is both a relaxed feel and yet an underlining urgency, as Nick bobs and weaves around Anika’s vibrant and diverse counter rhythms and changing tempo. Lashings of keyboards and organ provide a dense, ‘proggy’ backbone, with some exciting keyboard flourishes later. A real highlight is Dave’s rippling piano solo midway through, and even then, there is still time for yet another stellar solo from Nick and a return to the main theme before a restful finish.
The DNA double helix of life was Nick’s inspiration for Helix (scene 4). It starts off paced and restrained, but incrementally builds up in dynamism and intricacy, as the twisting complexity of the harmonic framework of the composition is unveiled. The guitar and bass once again intertwine around the amazing polyrhythms and complex fills of Anika’s drumming, before the guitar roams freely up and down the scales before finally coming in to land.
To the Stars We Shall Return (interlude) returns us back to that atmospheric, comforting and meditative sound of bowed guitar, but this time the musical landscape exudes Eastern mysticism with the evocative sound of Indian tabla-like percussion. There is a cosmic dimension to the Santana-like lead guitar here, and gradually the music becomes more frantic, dance-like and rather yearning. Despite its brevity, the interlude serves as the perfect introduction to the sheer grandeur and splendour of the next track.
The Journey to Varanasi (scene 5) is a real album highlight for me. Varanasi is the oldest and most sacred Hindu city on the Ganges in Northern India and is where people go to get cremated so their ashes can be thrown into the river. As a result, the song represents the end of mortal life and the final journey. It is truly cinematic and epic in nature, with the heavy, distorted rock-style guitar riffs, frantic, uncertain and disturbing lead guitar and vibrant and expressive sitar casting a spell that draws you into its deep heart. Imagine the intricacy of Joe Satriani and Yngwie Malmsteen, but with the spiritual depth and feeling of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and you get an idea of intensity of this piece as our traveller ‘rages against the dying of the light.’ Tim delivers some wonderful bass before another startling guitar solo from Nick, but the entire band is on fire here, through to the rampant finale. It’s a real ‘wow!’ moment that leaves you cathartically drained by the end.
You can’t follow that for intensity, but Nick delivers the perfect, contemplative and reflective conclusion to the album with Standing on the Edge of Time (denouement). We hear the endless sea once more and we gently surrender to the cosmos and accept our ultimate fate, to the sound of a plaintive guitar solo dripping with poignancy and resignation. Both sad, but somehow uplifting, the closing celestial soundscape stays with you long after the final sounds fade.
Nick Fletcher has produced a simply stunning instrumental album for anyone who loves expressive and exuberant electric guitar playing from a virtuoso UK guitarist at the absolute height of his game. Prog, jazz, rock and ambient sounds fuse together with astonishing drumming and lush bass and keyboards. A deeply contemplative and spiritual suite of music to immerse yourself within. It is easily the best jazz/prog/rock fusion album I’ve heard for a long time and is undoubtedly one of my albums of the year. Hopefully it will further cement Nick’s reputation as one of the most innovative and talented guitarists on the circuit. A triumph of creativity, ambition and delivery – Bravo!
01. A Wave on the Ocean of Eternity (prelude) (4:16)
02. Overture to the Cosmos (overture) (4:53)
03. Riding the Event Horizon (scene 1) (6:17)
04. Ziggurat of Dreams – part 1 (interlude) (2:41)
05. The Fifth Parallel (scene 2) (6:24)
06. Aphelion (scene 3) (7:25)
07. Ziggurat of Dreams (interlude) (1:51)
08. The Helix (scene 4) (6:24)
09. To the Stars We Shall Return (interlude) (2:56)
10. The Journey to Varanasi (scene 5) (7:11)
11. Standing on the Edge of Time (denouement) (4:14)
Total Time – 54:51
Nick Fletcher – Guitar, Slide Guitar, Variax Sitar, ‘Angel Vibe’ Guitars
Anika Nilles – Drums
Caroline Bonnett – Hammond Organ, Fender Rhodes, Piano, Synth, Sound Effects, Loops
Dave Bainbridge – Hammond Organ, Piano, Synthesiser (tracks 3,5 & 6)
Tim Harries – Bass
Record Label: Rough Draft Audio
Formats: CD, Digital
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 15th September 2023