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FAT: (Living the Dream)

John Kelman By

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FAT: FAT: (Living the Dream) While he's been living in Los Angeles for many years, Alex Machacek clearly values longterm musical relationships. While the majority of his recordings for the Raleigh, NC-based Abstract Logix imprint have seen the Austrian-born guitarist working with the likes of Jeff Sipe, Matthew Garrison, Neal Fountain and Gary Husband, his 2005 label debut, [sic], was notable—beyond its stunning compositions and mind-boggling post-Allan Holdsworth-ian guitar gymnastics—for the participation, on most tracks, of two fellow Austrians: bassist Raphael Preuschl and drummer Herbert Pirker (with Machacek's wife, Sumitra Nanjundan contributing vocals to the attention-grabbing, autobiographical "Indian Girl (Meets Austrian Boy)"). While Pirker was new, at least on record, to Machacek's cadre of musical compatriots, Preuschl's collaboration with the guitarist dates back to one of the guitarist's earliest known albums, Musical Universe—Universal Music (Extraplatte, 2000), under the group moniker Next Generation of Sound.

Seven years would pass before Machacek reconvened with Preuschl and Pirker, this time under the group name FAT (Fabulous Austrian Trio), for its 2012 Abstract Logix debut, FAT—an album that continued Machacek's penchant for quirky, oftentimes knotty and always surprising writing, and the kind of staggering playing that, bolstered by his equality talented trio mates, continued to render him as one of the best guitarists too few people have heard...though tours, over the past few years, with Eddie Jobson and the keyboardist/violinist's semi- reunions of the late '70s progressive rock supergroup U.K., have helped garner him some additional visibility.

Machacek may be an immensely gifted guitarist/composer too-often compared to Holdsworth but, while there is some truth to the comparison in terms of Machacek's penchant for sweeping legato lines, unorthodox, finger-breaking chordal voicings and a compositional approach of rare depth and pointillist detail, it would be better to consider Holdsworth as nothing more than a starting point.

Machacek has taken the elder guitarist's paradigm-shifting approach and expanded upon it considerably by bringing in elements of Frank Zappa's comedically collage-like writing and plenty of the guitarist's own ongoing evolutionary/revolutionary style: the assimilation of contemporary electronics/electronica; a far broader textural palette that incorporates Eivind Aarset-like guitar atmospherics and a seamless blending of electro-acoustic colors; and an ability to switch between sonics with rare nano-second precision, even as he simultaneously executes phrasing, chordal motion and all manner of harmonic motifs with similar mind-bending accuracy.

Putting it plainly, there is no other guitarist on the planet like Alex Machacek...at least, not on record or with any kind of visibility. That doesn't mean he's "the best" guitarist, as such a reductionist empirical is usually meaningless as there are plenty of other guitarists with plenty of different (and similarly unique) things to offer; but it does mean that hearing Machacek—in particular within the context of the rapidly evolving and empathically connected FAT—is an experience like no other.

From the opening press drum roll and four-chord cross-hatching of Presuschl's descending bass line and Machacek's ascending set of near-impossible chords, to Machacek layering choppy chords over which Preuschl drives Pirker's high hat-bolstered backbeat, and the trio settling briefly on a deceptive theme, where bass and drums maintain a 4/4 pulse as Machacek delivers an almost unimaginably complex theme—warm- toned chords, rapid intervallic leaps and boldly descending phrases—before returning to the previous, fiery pulse and another melody that's interspersed with curious stops filled with electronics-altered voicings, this description of "Disco Hits" isn't just classic, idiosyncratic Machacek...it covers just the first minute of a piece that, at only five minutes, still allows plenty of solo space for Machacek.

And what a solo; beyond being a compositional thinker at a level few can conceive—tying together complex ideas into something possessed of clear and memorable form—Machacek's ability to somehow think equally compositionally as he builds a solo filled with more ideas-per-minute than most guitarists do in five or ten—even as it, again, makes perfect, logical yet unerringly surprising sense—is another indicator of the guitarist's distinctive approach...and, even more, deep musical thinking.

If all this sounds thoroughly exhausting—though it's not; if anything, it's positively exhilarating—another aspect to Machacek's writing and playing is that he understands the concept of narrative. "Hippedie Hop" drops the pace considerably, and demonstrates that FAT is not all about frenetically changing contexts and mind-boggling gymnastics; it is also about appropriate use of space. Still, over Preuschl and Pirker's gentle support, Machacek's chord-based theme remains beyond the imagination of many writers, and when the song hits a brief mid-section shift, Machacek's layering of rapid-fire harmonics, atmospherics and overdriven slide guitar create the setup for another impressive, warm-toned solo. The entire trio kicks, once again, into high gear as Machacek adopts his smoothly sustaining, overdriven Holdsworth-informed tone for a solo of staggering, legato-driven lines, leading to a bass feature that makes clear Preuschl is not just an ideal accompanist, he's capable of standing right alongside Machacek as a soloist.

If there's any one thing about (Living the Dream) that differentiates it from FAT—and there's plenty—it's that, while there is no shortage of knotty, idiosyncratic and occasionally humorous writing, the overall vibe of the album is more relaxed, based on a trio that has spent more time together and is gradually honing its own approach to interpreting Machacek's undeniably complicated but increasingly lyrical music.

Machacek has always been impressive; but with (Living the Dream) he's even more reliant upon his trio mates to create a collective sound that ranges from gentle balladry ("ByeBye") and semi-industrial grooves with heavy processing on the drums (Preuschl's "Argonaut"), to episodic creations that move from soft and slow to frenetic and fast, all the while providing space for Machacek to build a lengthy solo that's as sonically intricate as it is intrinsically melodic ("Flexibility"), and an almost—almost— gospel-groove of a closer, "Oh Lard," that features wordless vocals from Nunjundan, Sheila Gonzalez and the unidentified DLG, amidst comically subdued shout-outs of "yeah," "alright" and "oh yeah... yeah," as Machacek layers acoustic, electric and slide guitars with impeccable choice and precision.

While FAT was largely composed by Machacek, with the exception of two tracks from the bassist, on (Living the Dream) Preuschl delivers four of the album's eleven tracks including, in addition to "Argonaut," the mid-album trifecta of "Quint Et Sens," with its bass-driven chordal forward motion; the funkier "Aux Delices De Tunis," with Machacek's chunky, Steve Cropper- on-acid chords; and the softly harmonic-driven ballad, "L'Appel de la Mer."

Maybe it's the inevitable wisdom of age, with Machacek now in his early 40s, but as impressive as (Living the Dream) is, and as much as it fits comfortably in his overall discography, it's the album where, despite its many twists and turns, harmonic, melodic and rhythmic surprises, and the evolving chemistry of FAT, it's also the album where all three musicians come together with a sense of nothing left to prove. And it's that very comfort level with each other, and that very feeling of maturity that makes (Living the Dream) an even better record than the superb FAT...and one of the very best in Machacek's growing discography.

Track Listing: Disco Hit; Hippedie Hop; ByeBye; Argonaut; Flexibility; Quinte et Sens; Aux Délices de Tunis; L'Appel de la Mer; La Linea; Repeat After Me; Oh Lard.

Personnel: Alex Machacek: guitars; Raphael Preuschl: bass; Herbert Pirker: drums; Sheila Gonzalez: vocals (11); Sumitra Nanjundan: vocals (11); DLG: vocals (11).

Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: Abstract Logix | Style: Funk/Groove


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