Friday, April 18, 2008

The Speed of Sound

Most instrumental guitar albums from the 80s are pretty much unlistenable now. Most of them were pretty unlistenable then, even if you were high on testosterone and Stridex acne pads.

I'd make the case for Ronnie Montrose's Speed of Sound as one of the few exceptions to that rule. I loved this album then, and it holds up today. Who the hell is this guy? Well, apparently he played with the Edgar Winter group (don't know if he did Free Ride or not), and had his own band (fronted by... echh... Sammy Hagar), but he is primarily known as an instrumental guitarist.

The album is from 1988 and features drum programming from the era where "the drum samples are good, but the dynamics aren't there", and mostly electronic, sparse accompaniment. The guitar sound is Heavily Processed, from an age where guitarists had eschewed the pedals-into-amp approach in favor of the rackmount Guitar Processor, lending the tone copious amounts of reverb and distortion that actually did not model any kind of amplifier or pedal, but was its own entity. It's a warm, fuzzy sound that in this case, doesn't sound "loud". You can put this album on and not want to put blankets over the speakers.

The playing is restrained and tasteful (as it gets for the genre). Very few wheedlie-whees, mostly simple melody lines and embellishments, with a good bit of emotion. I remember reading an interview with him in Guitar Player where he said his hand was healing from slicing it open with a knife, so recording the leads involved a significant amount of pain, which might explain the lack of pyrotechnics and the emotion-charged bends.

All of the songs have spacey names like "Outer Marker Inbound", "VTOL", and "Zero G". There's even a cover of the Ventures' "Telstar". Here's a sample from Amazon.

As with any album that was part of the soundtrack to your youth, I've lost all ability to judge it objectively. The songs put me back, waiting in front of the hardware store in the winter for my dad to pick me up from work. I'm listening to it on my new Toshiba walkman with auto-reverse and built in 3-band EQ. It's dark and snowing a little, and the guitar sounds perfect.

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