English avant-garde guitarist Matt Stevens has become somewhat of an underground idol in the realm of musical experimentation, which is due in no small part to his increasing prominence in a variety of magazines and ranked polls. Having established himself well as both a solo artist and a member of dissonant rockers The Fierce and the Dead, Stevens is well aware of the growing expectations behind each of his releases. Fortunately, his latest concoction, Lucid, is as thrilling, bold, and intricate as anything else he’s done. It’s not the most accessible or melodic instrumental music you’ll ever hear, but its vision, dedication, and fearlessness make it remarkable anyway.
Like many of his peers, Stevens is unabashedly a student of Robert Fripp and King Crimson, so it’s not surprising that Lucid features revered drummer Pat Mastelotto, as well as several other guest musicians, including Charlie Cawood (Knifeworld), Jem Godfrey (Frost*), Emmett Elvin (Chrome Hoof/Guapo), and Chrissie Caulfield (Crippled Black Phoenix). Steven’s Fierce and the Dead bandmate Stuart Marshall also contributes a bit of percussive flair.
In addition, Stevens says that the album took three years to complete, adding:
I really wanted to make this one a significant step up from the previous albums. It's inspired by a bit of a dark time, but hopefully it's an uplifting record. I'm so proud of the people who played on it…It’s a record that reflects my love of Jesu and Celtic Frost as much as the Mahavishnu Orchestra and King Crimson or even Peter Gabriel and I'm really proud of it. If you're not going to take risks and try and do something interesting what's the point?
There’s simply no better way to start off than with “Oxymoron,” a powerful declaration dominated by counterpoints and crafty percussion. Its lead riff is simple yet hypnotic, and Stevens proves to be quite inventive by applying sharp six-string layers over it. It’s also quite dynamic and affective, as the tonal shifts convey more emotion than you’d expect. Honestly, it sounds a bit like something Omar Rodriguez-Lopez (At the Drive-in/The Mars Volta) would come up with, and that’s always a good thing.
The subsequent venture, “Flow,” is more mechanical and twisted, with a central guitar loop providing foundation for surface effects to evolve as it plays. Next, “Unsettled” is a clear nod to the aforementioned jazz fusion pioneers. Fortunately, Stevens seems aware that Lucid may feel a bit redundant at this point, so he allows “The Other Side” to change up the formula significantly. For one, its acoustic guitar juxtapositions feel a bit Middle Eastern, which results in a more delicate, playful, and mysterious composition.
As its name suggests, “The Ascent” is an ample immersion into hellishly robust instrumentation, with the rhythm section doing its best to keep up with and innovate around the aggressive guitar lines. John McLaughlin would be proud. Meanwhile, “Coulrophobia” is a hypnotic, spacey odyssey with just enough tension to keep you on your toes. It features some of the album’s most experimental moments, as well as some of its most diverse timbres. “Street Circus” evokes a summery, carefree vibe due to its freeing percussion and melodic lines; it also stands in stark contrast to “The Bridge,” a lengthy journey that begins quietly and ends devastatingly, filling listeners’ ears with feedback and angry tones. Luckily, “A Boy” ends the album with a calm, acoustic ballad, which definitely lulls listeners after its predecessor’s onslaught. In a way, it serves the same purpose as “Good Night” after “Revolution 9” on The White Album.
Like everything its creator touches, Lucid is a very interesting and brave work. Sure, it can be a bit monotonous at times, but Stevens’ brand of guitar-driven instrumental rock still manages to be more diverse and cunning than many of its stylistic peers, which is a true testament to his worth in the field. His is a very specific aesthetic and approach, so as long as you have an open mind and know what to expect, you’ll no doubt cherish Lucid for the rambunctious yet restrained gem that it is.