by Alissa Ordabai
Staff Writer –
February 22, 2012 at The Underworld in London, UK
Currently in Europe road-testing his new self-titled album, the guitar virtuoso Tony MacAlpine is proving yet again that his solo records remain his most exciting work. After keeping busy touring as a member of Steve Vai’s live band, collaborating with Billy Sheehan, Virgil Donati, and other hotshots on prog-rock projects, as well as releasing jazz fusion CDs, the veteran of high-tech guitar is now back to being the grand master of his own creative universe.
Comprised of Angra drummer Aquiles Priester, Bjorn Englen on the bass (who also plays for Yngwie Malmsteen) and a 23 year-old up-and-comer Nili Brosh on the second guitar, MacAlpine’s live band is a tough-sounding combination of ferocity and discipline – something Londoners got a taste of first-hand at the Underworld club last Wednesday.
Not interested in overwhelming or intimidating his audience (which on the night – incidentally – included Herman Li from Dragonforce as well as a whole bunch of aspiring local shredders), MacAlpine made this show at once accessible and utterly futuristic, combining his instant-grip melodies with the angular punch of riff-heavy prog-rock.
The organic way in which MacAlpine weaves his insanely complex solos into the fabric of his songs, plus the way his melodies are at once memorable and constantly expanding, draws in the unprepared, while also keeping the most discerning high-brows on their toes.
The band was clockwork-tight, despite this being their first tour together. Aquiles Priester can go from melodic, hypnotically fluid beats to a roiling groove all within the space of one song, and floats perfectly even the most complex harmonic changes. Far from just keeping time, he builds several layers of texture, but never sounds cluttered while doing that – something which not only adds heat to the proceedings, but gives them an extra sonic and compositional dimension.
Nili Brosh’s volume was at times completely inaudible, but when her 7-string guitar was managing to cut through the mix, she complimented MacAlpine’s leads spot-on, sometimes playing in unison with his neck-break passages, and sometimes taking over all the guitar duties when MacAlpine was soloing on the electric piano. She is a young, camera-shy performer, studiously sincere and industrious (which is affirmed by her faculty membership at Berklee College of Music), but only beginning to find out about the balance between supporting a monster player and expressing herself.
But it was not MacAlpine’s instrumental wizardry – be it on the guitar or the keyboard – which was the biggest draw of the show. Nor was it the tasty, richly articulated fiesta of Priester’s drumming. As the band picked momentum, launching into the most audacious songs of MacAlpine’s first 1985 album The Edge of Insanity, suddenly the door into a different world was flung wide open. The sprawling soundscapes, soaring melodies and swirls and sparks of the lightning-fast, but at the same time non-obsessive guitar solos was where you forgot about the technique and let the actual music do its magic.
Somewhere between metal, prog-rock and melodic rock, MacAlpine’s material – be it old or new – escapes categorisation. Probably because he never thought of it in terms of genres, as he told this writer before the show. To him compartmentalization has always seemed artificial, and with his breadth of musical knowledge – stretching from his classical piano training to his love for jazz – this allows him to play without the weight of history on his back.
MacAlpine’s music has changed since the release of The Edge of Insanity in 1985, but while the new record sounds edgier and darker compared to the sunny vibe of his earlier albums, there is that balance of chops, structure, and emotion that unites them, despite the transfiguration’s of the past 25 years in music in general and in MacAlpine’s own inner continuum. The highlight of the show “Ölüdeniz” from the new record was one such number with the melody so open and so poignant that it erased distinctions between the Eighties and the now, between the high-brow and the low-brow, connecting with the audience through the heart, not through the brain.
“We are not going back to the big hair days!” MacAlpine laughs when asked about the vibe he feels when playing the new tunes and the material from 1985 in the same set. But the fact that he plays his very first record in its entirety on this tour shows that the material was able to stand the test of time. Asked if how he sees the difference between being a guitar player now as opposed to the Eighties, he tells me that both the instruments and the amps have become better: “In the Eighties you had a whole rack of effects, while now it is all built into the amp.”
Not a big fan of complexly layered guitar effects, on the night MacAlpine made sure his tone was clear and vivid. He used the Hughes & Kettner amp with the Coreblade head which allows guitarists to upload presets, and which he says is helpful in live situations because the rig is already included in the amp head.
But the “sonic fullness” which he sometimes refers to in interviews is there mainly thanks to his 8-string guitar which allows him to double harmonies and musical phrases with other instruments, especially with the bass. This way he can diversify the lower end of the sonic spectrum without overloading the lower register.
MacAlpine’s custom-made 8-string Ibanez Prestige looked swaggeringly high-style on the night, but rather than the instrument itself, the most spectacular visuals came from watching his formidable chops up-close – something which an intimate venue such as the Underworld is brilliant at allowing you to do. MacAlpine’s superhuman right-hand technique, the flying successions of pitch-perfect bends, his spare but tasteful tapping – all this seamlessly blended with the songs. The combination of dazzling flights of imagination and the down-to-earth craft, the magic and the technique, the personal and the traditional is what makes seeing MacAlpine live such an authentic experience. This is where it’s at – music which shares something real, played by someone who cares deeply enough to have progressed to the highest standards of his craft to match his inner realities.
1. Wheel of Fortune
2. The Stranger
3. Quarter to Midnight
5. Empire in the Sky
6. The Witch and the Priest
7. Keyboard solo by Tony MacAlpine
8. The Taker
9. Edge of Insanity
10. The Raven
11. No Place in Time
12. Angel of Twilight
14. The Sage
15. Tears of Sahara
16. The Violin Song
17. Serpens Cauda
19. Aquiles Priester drum solo
20. Stream Dream
1. Guitar Solo by Tony MacAlpine
2. Hundreds of Thousands