Conveying emotion without the use of words is a skill which few possess. The ability to convey something truly meaningful with only a musical instrument – and, more often than not, an acoustic guitar – is such a powerful one when articulated well that an entire culture of fingerstyle guitarists trading in such a craft has emerged over the past handful of decades. While technicality is all well and good on such an instrument, it’s a keen melodic ear and an intuitive feel for nuance that’s needed for an artist to stand out in such a bustling, if niche, genre.
Ryley Walker and Bill MacKay both long ago proved their worth as guitarists; Walker’s discography may only go back some half a decade but it’s one of the most powerful bodies of work in modern music, voiced with a unique outlook and an individualist’s inflection. MacKay, meanwhile, has been refining his craft for far longer (see our recent interview with him for more on that) and, although his discography is far from compact, his most recent work ‘Esker’ (released earlier on in the year and reviewed here), stands as some of his best. The question, then, is not how able either MacKay or Walker are as guitarists but rather how well their styles meld together.
Those familiar with the duo’s first collaborative effort, 2015’s excellent but swiftly-deleted ‘Land Of Plenty’, will need no convincing of the intuitively flowing nature of their musical interplay. In many ways, each brings out the best in the other as musicians and although neither of the duo’s albums are self-indulgent, they do both have a searching, improvisational core to them. Both on ‘Land Of Plenty’ and ‘SpiderBeetleBee’, it seems almost as though MacKay and Walker are musically egging each other on; both seeing how far they can push the improvisational envelope. It’s not a competitive feel so much as a harmonious one – and the natural, effortless sound of the two guitarists together does suggest that there may well be something of the ideal about this collaboration.
As excellent as the ‘Land Of Plenty’ was, sophomore effort ‘SpiderBeetleBee’ is not only considerably better but one of the finest records either artist has been involved with – a weighty statement, given the quality of either’s finest records. With not a single note awry on the album, it’s a perfectly paced record that never lacks in variety but still retains a sharp sense of cohesion and completeness. The varying moods of the music keep the record feeling fresh throughout; there’re moments of ponderous reflection (the creeping reverie of ‘Naturita’), playful curiosity (the autumnal hues of ‘Dragonfly’) and bright-eyed wonder (Pretty Weeds Revisited).
The album clocks in at a bite-sized 31 minutes and, while often such a short runtime would be something of a concern, if anything it works in favour for ‘SpiderBeetleBee’. It’s a short enough album that it never risks outstaying its welcome and, despite its ephemeral length, the duo fit in such a range of tones and inflections that the record feels extremely complete in a way few albums so short do. Indeed, the album’s brevity only encourages extensive repeat listens – the to-the-point nature serving, if anything, to embellish its innate impact and make the album compulsively moreish.
Although by and large a sparse effort that only employs the dual guitars of Walker and MacKay, cello is brought in to flesh out the tonality of certain passages. It’s a subtle touch that complements the core sound well; the generally spare instrumentation is certainly a positive however, as it allows the finessed melodies on the album to fully shine, un-suffocated by unnecessary additions. It’s not just melodically where the record excels, either; rhythmically ‘SpiderBeetleBee’ boasts subtle flourishes which act as vibrant highlights in already characterful pieces.
Production is relatively inconspicuous here but it serves the music well and definitely suits the songs. There’s an unpretentiously raw clarity to the album; although performances are extremely well rehearsed and musicianship is rich and impressive throughout, small touches such as the clattering of nails on wood are left in where a more fastidious producer would have erased such supposed imperfections. Such small touches only add character to the album and enhance an overall air of the deeply human found throughout the album.
‘SpiderBeetleBee’ is an intricate work; an album that flourishes under extensive repeat listens but yet manages to be accessible even upon initial playthroughs. Sonically intimate and musically raw, the album collates together eight immersive pieces which manage to sit together cohesively despite an acute sense of musical and tonal variety. Although an old discipline, fingerstyle guitar has enjoyed a real renaissance over the past decade or so and the past few years in particular have seen the release of some real classics. Despite what can only be described as firm competition, ‘SpiderBeetleBee’ is a masterful example of the style and stands as some of the best work in the discographies of both artists involved.
The track listing for ‘SpiderBeetleBee’ is as follows…
01 “The Grand Old Trout”
02 “Pretty Weeds Revisited”
03 “Lower Chestnut”
05 “I Heard Them Singing”
06 “Stretching My Dollar In Plano”
07 “Lonesome Traveler”