07 October 2010

CD REVIEW: Dean Watson - Unsettled

Dean Watson contacted me a short bit ago following my review of Relocator’s debut CD, asking if I might be interested in checking out his album Unsettled.  I’d heard some very good things about the release, so it sounded like something that’d be of interest to me, and I encouraged him to send along a copy at his convenience.  I’ve been listening to this one for a while now, and today we’re going to take a closer look at it.

Dean Watson comes from Ontario, and Unsettled is a solo album in just about every way.  He’s written all the music and played everything.  Every guitar, every keyboard, every bass, every programmed drum note…it’s all Dean.  That’s a benefit and a detriment…while the music is incredibly locked in, incredibly tight (yet with admirable space), the lack of a live drummer (even if he were playing an electronic kit with triggered samples from, say, the Drumkit from Hell) is for me a shortcoming.  Drum hits, especially on faster sections, remind of machine gun fire, and the limitation of the sample set being used really creates an entirely too precise, clinical drum sound.  That ultimately includes the programming…either that, or Dean Watson is the world’s most precise electronic drummer ever, in which case I’ll have to apologise for that comment but still wish that there was a more diverse sample set being used.

I don’t have the same complaints about his bass/guitar/keyboard playing.  His bass work is fluid and effortless, with a nice round tone.  His guitar playing ranges from thick and crunchy to clean and shimmering, while he picks some great keyboard patches, including a really warm, real sounding Hammond tone that I still am not certain isn’t the real thing.  Since he plays everything there might be a concern about things getting too tight, and while there’s plenty of tight playing, there’s some nice space in these compositions that makes things work well.

The first three tracks on Unsettled do a great job of showcasing the breadth and scope of this release.

We start off with ‘The Encounter.’  When I played the album for the first time, and heard the marinba tone being used, my first thought was ‘Ooh, Zappa!’  We don’t remain in fields of Zappaesque sound for long, but it was a cool little nod, intentional or otherwise.  The drumming underneath is incredibly complex, and I think it’d be ever so much more impressive with a live kit.  Add in some heavy guitar and shifting keyboard patches…swirly synth here, organ there…and you have all the ingredients for an impressive album opener.  It’s nice to come out of the gates with a barnstormer of a track, and ‘The Encounter’ definitely is that.  Heavy, dexterous, with some nice shifts in tempo and time, and we’re definitely off on the right foot.

‘The Push’ takes us in a different direction entirely.  For me, if ‘The Encounter’ was a showcase for Watson’s guitar playing (and it really was), then ‘The Push’ gives us a taste of Watson’s killer keyboard chops.  Loads, veritable oodles of Hammond organ lace this track almost from the opening beat, with some Yamaha GX-1 like synth adding more colour and texture.  True story…I was listening to this one in the store I work at a week or so ago, and a customer came in and nearly dropped the receiver he was carrying in shock as he exclaimed to his wife ‘Oh my god, it’s a new ELP song!’  I suppose it was the organ playing, when I think about it, but I can see it too in some ways.  This is definitely a bit more bop-jazz like than the stuff I usually hear Emerson copping from, but I’d take it as a compliment if it were me.

Our third side of Watson’s playing comes out on ‘Out of the Mist,’ which offers up some lovely and lyrical bass playing.  I really like the laid back vibe of this track as it opens, with gentle synth textures colouring and adding shape to the really gorgeous bass playing.  At 8:27, this is the longest piece on the album, and honestly as gorgeous as it is, it’d probably overstay its welcome if there weren’t some kind of, oh, let’s say shocking development in the song.  And at 4:09, when the first chord comes crushing and crashing down over the acoustic guitar and synth orchestration, that development drops in with a sudden shock.  The synth playing reminds of Mahavishnu in colour, the electric guitar chords (or chord, really) are almost bludgeoning in contrast with the rest of the musical backing, and the tension is palpable.  The closing two minutes almost seem like another song entirely, far more metallic and heavier than anything we’ve had thus far, presenting one final contrast in a composition that seems based entirely around them.

‘Sequence of Events’ takes the heaviness that closed out ‘Out of the Mist’ and wraps in it a skittery, almost contrapuntal beat.  And oh, there’s contrasts a plenty in this one too, as out heavy bar fusion band drops out at 2:20 in favour of a small club trio, brushes on virtual cymbals, cool jazz organ and a pulsing little beat on bass.  I’d love to have seen this explored a bit more…it’d have fit nicely in or around a track like ‘The Push,’ and while you might think it out of place, it fits on this album perfectly.  We get another cool little beat on ‘DIP,’ very syncopated, with piano and a warm, saturated guitar tone alternating melodic figures before some staccato organ chords enter the fray.  I’d almost call this one jaunty if that word weren’t so overused that it’s lost meaning.  This time I have to say the shift to much heavier territories seems a little less smooth, but I won’t complain too much, because the song as a whole is strong enough that I go with the flow anyway.

‘The Departure’ reminds me of Jeff Beck for some strange reason.  At least the opening moments do, up to about 3:00 in.  The mix of organ and warm guitar just scream Beck a la Blow by Blow or Wired.  Warm, sorrowful, lyrical, it’s a lovely instrumental that shifts at that previously mentioned 3 minute mark to heavier territories.  Marimba pops its head in again for a quick hello on the closing fade, and as good as that closing minute plus is, I miss that 70’s fusiony rock goodness that opened things up.

Unsettled closes out with our ‘title track,’ the 2:17 ‘Still (Unsettled).’  Gentle percussion and acoustic guitar are the colours for this track, and after an album of heavy rock, intense fusion, and hot jazzy workouts, it seems a bit odd to conclude the album on such a restrained, quiet track.  But I think it’s a daring little number, and the dearth of intensity actually works well in its favour, by offering up a different kind of intensity, built by tension and restraint.

Unsettled’s not a perfect album…I’m not at all keen on the programmed drumming, and I think at times there are some stylistic shifts in mid song that weaken a track or two.  Having said this, Unsettled is still a hell of a strong album, one that will not only satisfy the heavy metal/fusion heads out there, but also fans of 70’s prog and fusion looking for a new fix to satisfy their itch.  I have a feeling this is one that I’ll be spinning for a while, as it continues to satisfy even after dozens of listens.

Track Listing:
The Encounter
The Push
Out of the Mist
Sequence of Events
The Departure
Gray Matter
11th Heaven Blues
Still (Unsettled)

For Unsettled all music written and performed entirely by Dean Watson.

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