We’re all familiar with the classic guitar hero template: outsized ego, spotlight-hogging displays of six-string pyrotechnics, tendency to noodle away for aeons if given free rein to do so.
A new kind of guitar whizz has cropped up in recent years, primarily in the US. Exemplified by the likes of Chris Forsyth, Steve Gunn and Ryley Walker (the latter two in their instrumental projects), you won’t find much chest-beating show-off soloing in this new territory. Instead of self-indulgence, the six-string expertise is very much in service of the song: the music is far more interested in riffs, grooves, textures, melodies and moods than flashy individual displays of technical excellence.
Secret Stratosphere by William Tyler (something of a pioneer of the new American guitar arts) provides a perfect testimonial for the creative potential of the new guitar arts. Coexisting alongside a string of collaborations and band affiliations (Tyler has been a member of Lambchop and Silver Jews, as well as recording soundtracks and a recent duo album with Marisa Anderson), Tyler’s excellent solo albums have explored a graceful brand of cosmic, haunted Americana, with quicksilver guitar taking the central spot where vocals usually go.
Recorded live in in 2021 with a three-piece band christened The Impossible Truth after Tyler’s 2013 album (with Luke Schnieder’s pedal steel in a crucial support role), the more muscular moments of Secret Stratosphere send choice cuts from Tyler’s back catalogue to a greasy boogie boot camp, with exciting results: imagine a brainy art-rock type after a week on a solid BBQ ribs and draft beer diet, and you get the general idea of joyous juxtapositions at play here. In one of the album’s displays of music nerd humour, Tyler jokingly refers to new tune ‘Area Code 601’ as a “Hawkwind-meets-Charlie Daniels Band number”. It’s actually quite an apt description: straddling a stomping beat seemingly on loan from Mud’s ‘Tiger Feet’, the performance blends the more highbrow recipes for hypnosis derived from post-rock and more motorik ends of Krautrock with the gleefully unreformed base instincts and sweaty wallop of, say, early ZZ Top.
Secret Stratosphere is even more compelling when Tyler and The Impossible Truth ease off the gas. Combining the enduringly evocative ‘Highway Anxiety’ into a melancholy medley with a superb reimagining of Kraftwerk’s ‘Radioactivity’ (the band’s favourite Blue Öyster Cult song, apparently) makes perfect sense: Tyler’s best material nods towards the thrills, aches and pains of the open road, even if his music travels on the mythical American highways rather than the autobahn.
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