Review: John Stevens' CD Barrage

July - September 1999: San Diego: San Diego New Music Newsletter Vol. 2, Issue 3

The timbral based pieces on John Stevens' hard to find CD, Barrage , are all performed solo on electric guitar with a multitude of processed effects and imaginative gestures. These pieces are soundscapes that tend toward the alien. Each totally inhabits a different universe. Stevens' music has the liveliness of improvisation but a formal strength more often associated with composed music. In a true sense the music is "symphonic" and not soloistic - the sound is full and the scope is epic even when a given piece may only be three minutes long. His music compels comparison to "musique concrète," but owes as much to Jimi Hendrix as to Pierre Henry and Pauline Oliveros. Dramatic conflict is often formally supplied by a dialectic process that pits a musical idea against its opposite. For example in the second cut, Barrage No. 1 , a pure pitched thread connects quirky discontinuities and startling gaps. The music is surprising, dramatic and develops in unexpected ways, but in retrospect is utterly logical and self-confident. This CD turns your head.

Now take everything you thought you understood from reading about John Stevens' style in the brief paragraph above, and erase.

In Stevens' other even more rare release, No Expectations , the music comes to us naked, unplugged. It is the antithesis of Barrage . Here we get a fine recording of the artist on acoustic slide guitar, but the references now are more Robert Johnson, Mick Jagger & Keith Richard and Catfish Keith. The point of contact between the two discs, of course, is the guitar. But there is another point of contact: whether he is improvising or stylin', he does so with the mind of a composer. With this disc Stevens speaks for the dispossessed - literally and figuratively. He croons in successive takes of the same Mick Jagger tune in various musical impersonations - from plantation work song to white Southern Baptist Gospel, sometimes in self-parody - creating a large scale variations form that fills the entire album.

--- Igor Korneitchouk

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