Robert Johnson has an awful lot to live up to. Not only does he have a namesake who can comfortably be fingered as the Godfather of Rock but there’s also the little matter of restoring the mortally tarnished reputation of instrumental rock guitar music. Saddling himself with a distinctly New Age title (Upon A Painted Ocean is a quote from Coleridge’s poem “The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner”) and a beautifully composed cover shot go some distance toward disguising the more muscular rock songs that are in evidence on the album.
Really, only Steve Vai, Jeff Beck, Frank Zappa, Michael Rother, Ed Wynne (Ozric Tentacles) and, latterly, Steven Wilson have even approached this difficult and fraught area of music with any hint of success. Of course, the only thing that unites these disparate talents is the guitar; musically they are all unique. Rob Johnson is no exception, and sounds like none of the above.
Indeed, Upon A Painted Ocean sounds a little like Porcupine Tree covering New Model Army, with the magpie borrowings of the Beastie Boys thrown in. There are recurring musical themes and elaborate reinterpretations (“Point The Gun And Pull The Trigger” reappears to serve as the undercarriage of scorching rock song “Milo’s Revenge”, for example) and the album feels like a coherent project.
With tracks ranging from 51 seconds to over five minutes, this 14 track album is a smorgasbord of acoustic and electric guitars placed in a variety of settings and cushioning the blow of using what sounds like a (nicely understated) drum machine for the rhythmic engine. At odds with the New Age-y exterior are the song titles: “Point The Gun And Pull The Trigger” is a Robert Fripp-like acoustic guitar and riff soundscape, unsettling the listener before reassuring them with the chunky riffing and melodic hook of “Monster Eats The Pilot” – complete with a voice saying “hello” before the almost three minute melodic rock song makes its presence felt. Hook-laden and hummable, Rob Johnson splatters Upon A Painted Ocean with a dazzling array of guitar sounds, studio trickery, scratching, didgeridoos, sound effects and even a short extract from Coleridge’s poem on “555-0134”, spoken by Max Bemis of Say Anything. All to capture the listener’s attention and keep it.
“Maimed Titles” is – perhaps, as its title suggests – a film soundtrack without a movie, starting slowly and gradually piling on the guitars and the pace for a rousing yet melodic climax. “… End Credits” pretty much confirms this with a squelchy keyboard version of the same tune in a vastly different setting, including the sound of synthesizers on the verge of nervous breakdowns. “bipolar” is the nominal end to the first side (if Upon A Painted Ocean was a vinyl album) and it recapitulates the musical breadth of the preceding songs, always showing that New Model Army tendency of making it sound like live playing and proudly showcasing the acoustic guitar as a rock instrument. Indeed, Upon A Painted Ocean sounds like a solo instrumental album that Justin Sullivan could have released.
“Turn The Page Now” urges the voice, just before the second ‘side’ starts with the laid-back “In Cahoots”. Of course, it wanders back into rock territory again, but it is the juxtaposition of the guitar sounds and styles that really inspires the imagination. The blunt acoustic folk of “Hello Magda” is given a smoother image in the slowly building closing track “Amy. G. Dala”, which bounces around in synthesizer limbo before taking off on an altogether more interesting journey. Featuring the final voice contributions from Max Bemis it ends the album on a positive rock note, although it takes its time getting there.
Rob Johnson is going to find Upon A Painted Ocean a hard sell (unless a kindly film producer asks him to score a movie, perhaps) but the sheer quality of the music on offer is something to smile about. I don’t envy him the challenge, but this is a sterling attempt at revitalising a moribund genre. Anyone who mentions Tubular Bells, however, will be both wide of the mark… and shot.
Duncan Harris The Dreaded Press