In a time when album sales are a challenge being mitigated, at least to some extent, by the release of deluxe editions and box sets, it's still more necessary than ever to grab potential listeners with imagery and words; the title of a box set can have, especially for those less than intimately familiar with the artist, either real attraction or, well, the opposite. And, at a time when more music than ever is being released (and for a myriad of reasons), excessive hyperbole has, to some extent, become an unfortunate order of the day.
That said, it's easy to see how a box set that collects the majority of an artist's solo work under the title The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever!
might be considered an overstatement...except when the artist in question is Allan Holdsworth. Holdsworth had already elevated himself to the status of guitar game-changer long before he released his first album as a leader, 1976's Velvet Darkness
(CTI, 1976)an album which the guitarist has disavowed, claiming these were rehearsal sessions released by the label without the musicians' collective consent and, therefore, not included in this box (licensing may also have had something to do with it). But this has only made his first "official" solo album, 1982's I.O.U.
, all the more advanced and, for those unaware of the CTI date, all the more remarkable for a guitarist who'd spent much of the previous decade working with increasingly major names, in ways that always seemed to elevate their music.
And so, Allan Holdsworth: The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever
a generous 12-CD box set that, while not absolutely complete, represents all of the guitarist's major studio releases (and then some) in newly remastered formis that rare instance when a grandiose claim is anything but
hyperbole. In addition to featuring expanded editions of three albumsthree bonus tracks on 1992's Wardenclyffe Tower
; the 2003 Special Edition
of 2000's The Sixteen Men of Tain
, with one additional composition; and 2003's Then!
, a live recording from 1990 that originally featured a hidden bonus track on the Japanese edition that is finally included on an American releasethe box also sports a 40-page booklet with detailed (and excellent) liners by Chris Hoard; full track and personnel listings for all twelve albums; a bevy of images including Holdsworth photos (live and publicity stills) and magazine covers; and a wealth of testimonial quotes from past collaborator Jeff Berlin
along with trend-setting guitarists in their own right (and across the entire musical spectrum) including, amongst others, John McLaughlin
, Eddie Van Halen, John Scofield
, Carlos Santana
, Pat Metheny Frank Zappa
and David Lindley, whose brief quote truly sums things up: "I put Holdsworth up there with Paganini and Liszt. Terrifying."
Terrifying, indeed. From his first recorded appearance with the progressive rock group 'Igginbottom, which released only one album, 1969's 'Igginbottom's Wrench
, it was clear something was afoot; but it was Nucleus
co-founder Ian Carr
's 1972 solo album, Belladonna
in particular Holdsworth's mind-bogglingly nuclear solo at the end of the fiery album closer, "Hector's House"that caused most guitarists sit up and take notice.
this guitarist, firing off atypically cascading (rather than ascending) lines at beyond-light speed, while still capable of profound lyricism and gritty bite? Who was
this guitarist, whose harmonic sensibility may have still been in its nascent phase, yet was instantly recognizable and clearly shaped, even then? Who was
this guitarist, capable of complex chords where his fingers seemed to dislocate at the joints, allowing him to effortlessly spread across seven frets at the low end of his instrument's neck? And who was
this guitarist whothis early in his careeremployed a distinctive legato approach that was still to fully form, in particular with respect to tone, yet intimated so many greater things to come?
Fortunately, guitarists (and others) didn't have to wait long to find out, although each album on which the guitarist appeared seemed to engender even more questions about just how
Holdsworth was doing what he did, like who was
this guitarist, who so deftly applied a whammy bar to create viscerally shifting chords and phrases that swooped and soared with unusual, near-vocal expression?
After the gobsmacker of his work on Belladonna
, Holdsworth soon demonstrated his ability to fit his unique linear concept, near-impenetrable harmonic language and legato styling into a multiplicity of contexts, from the progressive leaning Tempest (where he'd meet future I.O.U.
singer Paul Williams) to the psychedelic-turned-free jazz-turned-fusion group Soft Machine
, whose 1975 Bundles
found the guitarist's silky yet at-times still biting tone better-established, his entire concept more mature and well-formed just two years later, as he continued to evolve at an increasingly rapid pace.
At this point, Holdsworth was a guitarist who rarely stayed in one place for long. Moving to the USA to join ex-Miles Davis
drummer Tony Williams
' New Lifetimereleasing one great record, 1975's Believe It
and one mediocre title, 1976's Million Dollar Legs
it wasn't long before he was ocean-hopping again on a regular basis: guesting with the increasingly fusion and percussion-heavy, France-based Gong and 1976's superb Gazeuse!
as well as a couple of tracks on its 1978 follow-up, Expresso II
; back in the U.K., working with drummer John Stevens
' group Work, as well as a collaborative effort with Stevens and keyboardist Gordon Beck
, Conversation Piece
, recorded in 1977 but not released until three years later; and back to the USA for 1977's Enigmatic Ocean
, led by French expat violinist Jean-Luc Ponty
, and American singer Esther Phillips
, on whose 1976 date Capricorn Princess
Holdsworth appeared, quite unexpectedly, playing pedal steel guitar. He was also known, on occasion, to pull out a violin. Who knew?
Even when recruited for membership in, at least in concept, longer-lasting groups, Holdsworth always seemed to have itchy feet. In 1977, the guitarist began (for him) a three-year collaboration with Bill Bruford
, the inimitable Yes
and King Crimson
drummer who, finding himself without a band after Crimson's late-'74 dissolution, decided to form his own.
And what a group it was, its moniker simply the drummer's surname. Bruford and Holdsworth were joined, for Bruford's 1978 debut Feels Good to Me
and singer-less 1979 follow-up, One of a Kind
, by über-electric bassist Jeff Berlin, avant-yet-sultry singer Annette Peacock
and Hatfield and the North
keyboardist extraordinaire Dave Stewart
who, in a just world, would (along with Berlin) be recognized as a game-changer just as significant as Holdsworth, but for whom that kind of appreciation was elusive beyond a relatively small but loyal group of "in the knows," though these days, younger progressive musicians like Steven Wilson
and Jakko M. Jakszyk
who belong to that "in the know" groupare beginning to recruit him into the pubic eye once again, both as a performer and orchestrator.
Beyond some U.K. live dates with Bruford, it was the drummer's recruitment of Holdsworth into the more radio-friendly progressive rock supergroup U.K. that brought the guitarist the most commercial acclaim yet, to go along with the widespread critical acclaim that had been following him throughout a career already filled with more twists and turns in just a few short years than many musicians experience in a lifetime. While that groupalso featuring keyboardist/violinist Eddie Jobson
and Bruford's rhythm section Crimson mate, bassist/vocalist John Wetton
released but one studio album with this lineup (1978's outstanding U.K.
), and embarking upon a seven-month 1978 tour that forms, quite literally, all of the best non-commercial release moments on the recent, career-spanning U.K.: Ultimate Collector's Edition
box set curated and released by Jobson, both the guitarist and drummer left soon after. Nevertheless, despite ostensibly intending to focus more time on Bruford, that wouldn't last long; despite two stellar studio albums and the recent revealing archival find, Rock Goes to College
, Holdsworth actually only played a short British tour with Bruford, the group, before moving on.
All this may seem like a long lead-up to Holdsworth's true emergence as a leader with I.OU.
and his one (sadly, failed) chance at major label commercial success, the EP-length Road Games
(The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever!
's first two discs). But throughout his time with Soft Machine, Williams, Ponty, Bruford, U.K., Gong, Tempest and morein particular with his relatively rare compositional contributionsit's possible to hear the multiplicity of pieces coming together so decidedly that he finally made the big leap, for a musician as largely introspective, self-effacing and self-critical, into releasing albums under his own name.
Before getting into all the great things about The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever!
and there is an abundance of high watermarksa couple of very minor quibbles. First, while the open-ended box is nicely designed, with a rare cardboard piece separating the two groups of six albums to ensure a nice, snug fit, and with all twelve releases in generous (rather than the so-often tight-fitting) gatefold mini-LP sleeves, that generosity of room for the actual discs is such that they fall out far too easily. An easy and relatively un-price-prohibitive solution would have been to place the CDs in paper (or better yet, plastic-lined paper) sleeves, as similar box sets by The Beatles
, The Rolling Stones
and David Bowie
Second, with the concurrent release of Eidolon
a two-disc, artist-curated collection for those not interested in the full box but who are looking for a great introduction to this guitarist and composer who has been imitated by many but very rarely copiedJack Bruce
's vocal version of Road Games
' title track (sung, on the EP, by Paul Williams) is a nice inclusion...except that it should have also been included as a bonus track on the full EP in the box set. Instead, completists who want the track will have to buy both the box and
the compilationunless they want to purchase the single track as a compressed MP3 or AAC from Amazon or iTunes...or unless, with the new masters of 1984's classic Metal Fatigue
, 1985's innovative Atavachron
and 1992's particularly exceptional Hard Hat Area
in 24-bit/96KHz high resolution, Manifesto Records ultimately intends to release all of The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever!
in high resolution, making it possible to acquire the track in an uncompressed format.
But these are, indeed, minor quibbles. After all, the remastering job on all twelve albumsand, of course by extension, Eidolon
is wonderful; brighter and punchier, without sacrificing, as some remasters do, the music's all-important dynamics, they also avoid losing the gentle elegance and diaphanous nature of some of Holdsworth's best ballads. The high resolution editions are even more impressive: the crunching guitars at the start of Metal Fatigue
's title track are even weightier; the tone of Holdsworth's unwieldy but sonically expansive SynthAxe guitar synth on Atavachron
's opening "Non-Brewed Condiment more expressive; and Skuli Sverrisson
's bass more fluidly well-defined on Hard Hat Area
's potent "Ruhkukah," just as the power and delicacy of Gary Husband
's work on the same album's nine-minute "Low Levels, High Stakes" is a master class in how fluent virtuosity need not mean undue excess.
Absorbing the entire The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever!
box chronologically provides an opportunity to follow Holdsworth's evolution over the course of the 21 years represented by these twelve albums, from his earliest days as a leader (I.O.U.
and Road Games
through to to his most recent studio date with a group (Sixteen Men of Tain
) and the largely solo, largely SynthAxe, largely (and unfairly) overlooked Flat Tire: Music for a Non-Existent Movie
. In between, there's a host of equally groundbreaking records: the classic 1985 I.O.U. follow-up, Metal Fatigue
; his SynthAxe-dominant trifecta of 1986's Atavachron
, 1987's Sand
and 1989's Secrets
; a more balanced return to guitar and
SynthAxe on 1992's particularly strong Wardenclyffe Tower
and the following year's equally powerful Hard Hat Area
(Holdsworth's only album to feature a consistent instrumental quartet rather than his usual choice of trio, with occasional additions of keys and/or vocals); and 1996's None Too Soon
despite largely framed in the jazz sphere (and being often pegged in the progressive rock arena), his one and only "real jazz" record as a leader, with standards culled from jazz giants including Django Reinhardt
, Joe Henderson
, Bill Evans
and John Coltrane
Holdsworth's cover of Coltrane's "Countdown" on None Too Soon
bears special significance. From his earliest days, the guitarist was drawn more to horn players and, in particular, Coltrane's "sheets of sound" that emerged most dominantly with the saxophonist's classic quartet of the early-to-mid-1960s. While the guitarist's early tone was more guitar-likealbeit with carefully shaped, effects-processed tones most guitarists would die forfeaturing plenty of gutsy bends and gritty bite to contrast with his increasingly signature legato approach, as the years passed Holdsworth would increasingly strive to eliminate the sound of pick on string...aiming more and more for a horn-like form of expression. It was a search that reached its current apex on Sixteen Men of Tain
and tracks like the album-opening "San Onofre," where a SynthAxe intro leads to a brief head and then a high octane guitar/drums duo with Gary Novak
, where Holdsworth's linear tone is almost completely devoid of attack...or, for that matter, decay, as held notes seem to hang on infinitely, until Holdsworth either pinches them or glissandos down the neck.
There are those who prefer Holdsworth with a little more bite and punch in his legato tone. Still, the way he processes his guitar when it comes to creating shimmering, complex chordal patternsheavily reliant on closed voicings created with those extra-long, seemingly dislocated fingers creating wonderfully ambiguity that allows maximum improvisational freedomis nothing short of lush and gorgeous, from his earliest days with I.O.U.
through to his more sonically expanded work on Flat Tire
And it's true: there are
techniques so remarkable that Holdsworth's desertion of them seems almost criminal. It's hard to believe, for example, during the instrumental section of Road Games
' title track that leads to a solofirst, deeply lyrical with a hint of whammy bar-driven melancholy; then, followed by a second chorus of frighteningly virtuosic shreddingthat what sounds like an electric keyboard is actually Holdsworth tapping out chords with both hands on the neck of his guitar. His leaps into stratospheric harmonics during his similarly compelling solo on Road Games
' opening instrumental, "Three Sheets to the Wind," are similarly head-scratching.
It's also no surprise that Holdsworth, in the EP liner, thanks two guitarists who, neither one a slouch, were so supportive to him during his early years after moving to Los Angeles: Eddie Van Halen, who helped secure a contract with Warner Bros. for Road Games
; and Frank Zappa, who suggested Wackerman, when Holdsworth was looking for a drummer in the LA area, and who would make his debut with the guitarist on Road Games
and become one of Holdsworth's two drummers of choice throughout most of his career, even though has played with other terrific stick men including Vinnie Colaiuta
, Gary Novak, Kirk Covington
and Virgil Donati
. Gary Husband, living in the UK, has continued to work extensively with Holdsworth as well over the years, both in the studio and in concert, including a stellar 2009 Gatineau, Canada show
with another longstanding Holdsworth alum, bassist Jimmy Johnson
. Road Games
executive produced by LA heavyweight Ted Templeman (Van Morrison
, Randy Newman
, Little Feat
)was Holdsworth's most determined attempt to marry his increasingly singular (and distinctly uncommercial) vision with a more commercially palatable concept (including, like I.O.U., mixing up instrumentals and vocal tracks), and it did manage to garner him even more fans...even a Grammy Award
nomination for "Best Rock Instrumental." Despite its overall more approachability, it's a remarkable achievement in its absolute lack of artistic compromise other than, at the behest of the label, employing Jack Bruce to sing the vocal material rather than Paul Williamsthough Holdsworth did dig in his heels and kept Williams' version of "Road Games" on the EP...with the Bruce version now available on the two-disc Eidolon
compilation. In many ways, Road Games
was a pivotal point in Holdsworth's career. Had it been released even five years earlier, it might have led to greater commercial success for Holdsworth...and a major label contract that, rather than dissolving after the EP and leaving the guitarist to record largely for smaller, independent labels (not that there's anything wrong with that), might also have continued.
In fact, were the following I.O.U. date, Metal Fatigue
, released on a major label, it's certainly possible that it would have continued to build the guitarist's fan base in a more substantive fashion. The opening title track is worth the price of entry alone, with its crunching, harmonized guitars, some of Paul Williams' best vocals on any Holdsworth record and another instantly memorable guitar solo that, again, beautifully blends an unmistakable melodic sensibility with unparalleled virtuosity and a clear sense of construction. On the other hand, with the way the early '80s were shaping up, it's not hard to understand why, despite his stellar reputation as a guitarist's guitarist and harmonic conceptualist nonpareil, his star on the commercial front was beginning to fall, even as his artistic credibility continued to grow.
A thought: while Holdsworth has long been considered one of the great guitarists in jazz and elsewhere, it's unfortunate that it took so long to ready himself for a solo career. With the momentum gained through his many associations in the '70s, had he begun his solo career just a few years earlier, it might have built even further upon that momentum and led to greater commercial acceptance to go along with the artistic success that has followed him throughout a career of uniformly superb albums. And it's a plain truth that, of The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever!
's twelve recordings, there's not a single weak one amongst the bunch.
Personal tastes may, indeed, vary; not everyone appreciates his wanting to expand his sonic palette with the introduction of his SynthAxe in 1986 and its heavy use on Atavachron
(all featuring tracks that he has continued to play live well into the 21st century); but Holdsworth was clearly searching for something, and technology was an unequivocal part of realizing the sounds he was hearing. Others would love to see at least some return to the more biting tone of even mid-period albums like Wardenclyffe Tower
, where Holdsworth seemed to have found a perfect balance between the more guitaristic tones he'd innovated earlier in his career with the expansive tonality of his SynthAxe and his desire to move towards a less attack-driven guitar tone. His solo on that album's opening "5 to 10," for example, is the perfect confluence of these three qualities...and he's still using his whammy bar to far more visceral effect. Elsewhere, his solo on the balladic "Sphere of Innocence" points more towards the complete elimination of attack heard on Hard Hat Area
and the records that followed. Still, there's an exhilarating level of energy and excitement, balanced with a profound attachment to melodies that are as unique as any of his more heavily gymnastic work.
There's no denying that, following his work across these twelve albums, there's an evolution in both Holdsworth's sound world and
the sophistication of his harmonic and instrumental concepts, even as he went, for the first time, for a more acoustic trio on Sixteen Men of Tain
, which featured Dave Carpenter
on double bass (barring two tracks) and drummer Gary Novak in a program that, more than any of his previous efforts focused exclusively on original material, fit firmly within the jazz sphere. Not that Holdsworth ever relied on any of the standard jazz touchstones: his language was his own; his sound his own; his compositional construction his own. And while he did some touring around that time with Carpenter and Novak, over the years his regular go-to-guys would be drummers Gary Husband and Chad Wackerman; bassist Jimmy Johnson and, occasionally later, Yellowjackets
' Jimmy Haslip; and keyboardists Alan Pasqua and Steve Hunt
. To some extent, Holdsworth's studio recordings are a different experience to the guitarist in a live situation, whereespecially in the last decade or soit's been far more about blowing than composition, though he continues to mine some of his best writing from across these twelve albums for live performances where they are often transformed to become nearlynearlyunrecognizable.
Some of these transformations can be heard on Then!
, the only live date in the box, and nicely featuring an outstanding quartet with Hunt, Husband and Johnson. From instrumental looks at originally vocal material from I.O.U.
("White Line"), and non-SynthAxed versions of Atavachron
's title track and opening "Non-Brewed Condiment" (though Hunt employed some of the same colors used by Holdsworth on his SynthAxe), to a burning treatment of Alan Pasqua's New Lifetime track "Proto-Cosmos," three spontaneous compositions and more, this 55-minute album fits comfortably in The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever!
as but one example of how Holdsworth and his group was able to transform material from across his career in a live context.
It's been seventeen years now, since Holdsworth last released a group studio album, though he has participated in collaborative projects like the Soft Machine alum-driven Soft Works (releasing Abracadabra
in 2003) and a reunion with Pasqua in a quartet with then-Yellowjackets
bassist Jimmy Haslip
and Chad Wackerman, releasing the video document Allan Holdsworth and Alan Pasqua featuring Chad Wackerman and Jimmy Haslip
(2007) and 2009 MoonJune Records CD release, Blues for Tony
. He's also been fundamental to some of Wackerman's small but impressive body of solo work, including 1991's Forty Reasons
, 1993's The View
and 2012's Dreams Nightmares and Improvisations
By this time, in 2017, the possibility of an actual new
Allan Holdsworth studio album coming anytime soon seems unlikely...though there isn't a Holdsworth fan out there who wouldn't like to be proven wrong. As the years have passed, the extreme self-criticism that has increasingly seemed to plague Holdsworth's careereven convincing him to sanction live releases from prior years is an effort rarely rewardedhas ground forward motion to a halt. There's little doubt that he continues to search for ways to hone and finesse an approach to his instrument that is truly uniquethere really is no other guitarist who sounds or writes like Holdsworthbut unless something new emerges, The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever!
serves up eight hours and forty minutes of some of the most innovative guitar work of the past 35 years.
And even if he were to never release another note, or perform another gigthough there are some dates lined up in California to go along with the concurrent release of The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever!
Holdsworth's place in the uppermost echelon of guitarists who have truly altered the course of the instrument's history is well and truly cemented.
With his most significant albums now collected in one place, The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever!
is a major reissue release that, with its impeccable remastering, brings many of its titles back into print for the first time in years with the best sound possible, Finally, not just guitarists but any
fan of boundary-stretching music of an electric nature can experience the full story of Holdsworth's emergencefollowing a decade honing his craft with othersas a leader with an incomparable approach to writing, playing, and shaping sound through the use of technology...something the guitarist was already doing early in his career and well before he began to adapt emergent guitar synthesis.
Few guitarists have not only pushed the boundaries of their instrument and what it can do but burst through them entirely, entering rarefied territory where they no longer sound anything like a conventional guitar but are, instead, capable of virtually anything
. The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever!
is where it all began and is also, for the time being at least, the final word on a guitarist truly capable of wearing the mantle of its brave but undeniably true title.