RoMoCo Records, 1999
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/25/1999
When Ronnie Montrose titles a song "The Map Is Not The Road," he knows whereof he speaks.
The map drawn for him by long-since forgotten huddles of agents and record label execs would have had the legendary guitarist pounding out three-chord party anthems for the 25 years gone by since he founded the seminal hard rock band bearing his last name. The road he has chosen instead has resulted in myriad trail-blazing instrumental explorations through jazz-rock fusion, otherworldly synthesizer textures, and bravura electric guitar pyrotechnics.
This year's Bearings marks Montrose's first all-acoustic outing. Far from coming off as some kind of third-generation "unplugged" marketing ploy, it provides still further confirmation of Montrose's relentless creativity and amazing intensity on his chosen instrument.
The variety of tones and moods he achieves in just 14 tracks here is remarkable. The opening "All Aboard" and the aforementioned "Map" offer propulsive rhythms as Montrose layers acoustic guitar with mandolin, acoustic bass and exotic percussion. "Three Wishes" opens and closes gently but tosses off a wild little jazz bridge in between. Meanwhile, tracks such as "Morning" and "Solid Ground" feature exquisite, almost classical, picking alternating with Montrose's formidable strums, his fingers snapping off notes like firecrackers.
On the very pretty "Lunarization" and "She's Watching," Montrose's pairing of his sweetly tumbling acoustic melodies with Ed Roth's understated, precise keyboard lines is reminiscent of the textures heard on "Leo Rising" and "My Little Mystery" from his masterful 1978 instrumental debut Open Fire. It's a welcome revisitation of a terrific sound.
Over and over, Montrose demonstrates an admirable economy of style. As on his many electric instrumental albums, he avoids completely the cliched guitar-hero faster-louder-more game, concentrating instead on tone and feel and resonance, with results that often sparkle. On "Line of Reason" Montrose and guest C.J. Hutchins fashion a beautiful acoustic duet full of intricate, nuanced interplay. (Musical detectives will also note that the second minute of this song is an extrapolation of a melody Montrose first tried out briefly near the close of "My Little Mystery" twenty years before!) The pensive "Lighthouse," meanwhile, strikes a movingly elegiac note, leading into the warmer, brighter finale, "Soul Repair."
Whether meditative or energizing, these 14 tracks are invariably atmospheric and emotionally charged. Montrose's experience scoring the Mr. Bones game soundtrack for Sega in 1996 has clearly carried over in his new compositions, fostering a cinematic, distinctly moody style that's more closely related to movie scoring than verse-chorus-verse pop structure. It's in fact no surprise at all to learn that "All Aboard" has already been snapped up for the soundtrack to Wildflowers, a forthcoming Daryl Hannah-Eric Roberts film - it's easy to imagine the same occurring with any number of the evocative cuts here.
From thundering electric anthems to searching acoustic mood pieces... yes, to borrow the Dead's overused line, what a long strange trip it's been for Ronnie Montrose. But the road keeps beckoning, and the only map this prodigious talent seems to need is the one tucked away in the hidden corners of his heart.