Saturday, December 1, 2012

Elmo Karjalainen - Unintelligent Designs

There have always been arguments over who is the greatest guitarist.  I call it the "clusterfuck" argument and nothing good can come of it.  Was Jimi Hendrix better than Andre Segovia? Could Stevie Ray Vaughan hold a candle to Sammy Hagar? Eric Clapton or Joe Pass? Malmsteen or Vai? Joe Satriani or Paco De Lucia? Jerry Garcia or Al Dimeola?  Robert Johnson or Django Reinhardt? 
While Rolling Stone Magazine may publish a list of the "100 Greatest Guitarists Of All Time", it is meaningless b.s..  Sure, everyone on the list has three things in common - (1) they are great guitarists; (2) they have successful marketing ; and, therefore, (3) You've heard, or at least heard of, them.  Yet, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of great guitarists of many different genres that have not had overly successful marketing that you probably have not heard.  One of them is Elmo Karjalainen ( I can even hear your collective "Who?" with the question mark hovering in a cloud over your heads.)

Karjalainen is a Finlandian rock guitar God known primarily for his work with the Finnish metal band Deathlike Silence.  On his new release, Unintelligent Designs, a sixteen track solo shot over the bow of the rock mothership, Elmo establishes himself as an elite world class rock guitar master.  It is neither a metal album nor is it strictly a rock album.  Rather, it is a guitar master course. The cover clearly warns - "PARENTAL ADVISORY: This record contains many tunes that are over 3 minutes long and no singing and is thus totally unsuitable for anyone".  I would add this caveat, unless you are a guitarist or guitar music lover. This is a guitar album made to mesmerize and amaze other guitarists and, from this old guitarist's viewpoint, Elmo succeeds beyond even his wildest dreams. 
The album starts with "Spark Of Hope", a slowly building jazz mood piece that could fit beautifully next to the works of George Benson and Earl Klugh. The track "Headlight Violence" is a classic metal guitar rocker that chases after the likes of Yngwie Malmsteen and Zakk Wylde with a classical and ethereal twist. Elmo tells us he hopes we enjoy the ride and then he drops a driving progressive jazz/rock gem on listeners with "Chromatic Tuna".  Rhythm, tone, speed, versatility and virtuosity - and he also wrote this stuff!

Karjalainen turns to dark metal, with a pronounced driving beat , with "Lovely Spam". Notes are flying everywhere and even my fingers get tired thinking about it until we are granted a slight reprieve when "Lovely Spam" morphs into an absolutely monster of a jam band tune.  Through it all Elmo nevers misses a note or a beat. With "The Promised Land of Roundabouts" he takes the listener into a progressive gloom rock maze of syncopation, swells, complicated bass patterns and imploring electric guitar. Then, Karjalainen plays "Home", a sweet melancholy primarily acoustic guitar, with some electric lead guitar, piece that I could envision as the sound track to a romantic movie montage.  However, "The Feigning Of Altruism" is another thing altogether.  There, Elmo calls upon his metal skills and produces a piece that reminded me a bit of early Genesis and their great tune "Watchers Of The Sky", only harder and without Peter Gabriel's voice and theatrics.  The one minute double time piece "Jammy Jam" is a calculated dissonant mess.  Karjalainen's finger play is so frenetic I thought it to be barely possible on a six string.

With thanks to "Mr. Eerie Wonder" Elmo launches into "The Voices In My Head", a contemporary classic progressive metal piece of guitar shredding proportions that descends into urban white noise.  The track "Oneself as Another" juxtaposes metal and progressive guitar themes to produce a wordless nine plus minute ballad. Elmo returns to a soft progressive jazz/blues rock tone with "Sanna", a beautiful piece with pleading, emotional guitar work.  The namesake of the album, "Unintelligent Designs" pumps up the tempo and comes across as a mid-1970's rocker. It almost begs for vocals, lyrics and chorus.  Yet, it is really a "my friends came over and we jammed" tune as Elmo announces part way through the song. 

"The Demise Of A Karaoke Bar" brings us back to a metal/progressive rock amalgam with even parts metal, progressive and straight up guitar tonal play.  "The Difficultist" commences with a slow heavy drumbeat and guitar descent and continues that descent in a swirling whirlpool of anxious, impending doom before slowly climbing back out over more than seven minutes of soundscape. "Tuire's And Ville's Wedding Waltz" is just that - a slow teary-eyed waltz - modern mood music for that first dance by the bride and groom (Elmo probably wrote it for a friend's wedding but that is purely a guess.) With the final track, "Until We Meet Again", Karjalainen advises, "Well, until we meet again the case is solved."  I have no idea what Elmo means by that but the soaring masterpiece of a finale that follows his exposition is well worth savoring until Elmo delivers his next solo effort.

Unintelligent Designs is an Elmo coming out party of sorts.  It begs you to listen and, if you do, if you listen critically, even if you are not a guitarist, you will come away impressed.  I'm adding Elmo Karjalainen to my guitar Gods list, right up there with the 100 that made Rolling Stone's list.  If Elmo had half the marketing of the guitarists on that list where do you think Elmo would be placed?  More importantly, who cares?  Just listen and let yourself be rocked by the guitar master known as Elmo Karjalainen.

- Old School

Chromatic Tuna

The Voices In My Head

The Feigning Of Altruism

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