Instrumental music in today’s industry can be a tough sell– people naturally seem better able to connect with ideas expressed through words and lyrics rather than musical ones. Of course this makes things harder for the musician; how communicative can your music be when you’ve jettisoned the expressive capabilities of lyrics? But because the internet is flooded with singer-songwriters who deliver their heartfelt lyrics over tired, four chord guitar playing, any attempt to deliver up a piece of art that speaks solely through sound and melody rather than words is admirable. Warren Mendonsa, the primary guitarist and composer of Blackstratblues, attempts to do just this with his newest record The Universe Has a Strange Sense of Humour. In lieu of singing, Mendonsa uses his guitar to weave together layers of chords and melodies to produce a rock record that, while not perfect, still provides a fair amount of well-executed ideas to please fans of the style.
This is Mendonsa’s third album of guitar-focused rock music under the Blackstratblues moniker, although he has also played as a member of the influential band Zero and as a session musician since the 90’s and early 2000’s. During that time, he has refined his sound as a guitarist, and it shows on this album. Mendonsa describes his work as “good honest music”, and such a characterization is fitting. His playing is not overly technical– instead Mendonsa finds ways to play simply and cleanly with subtle embellishments. He has an impeccable sense of balance and melodic phrasing in his music; for every guitar solo on The Universe, there is also a modest yet catchy riff to provide variation.
Despite the fact that most of the tracks utilize a somewhat underwhelming pop rock structure, the album’s greatest strength is that Mendonsa builds varied, self-contained ideas for exploration within the song. The result is that each track contains elements that sound purely unique from the the rest of the album. The main riff on the opening track ‘Renaissance Mission’ for instance is warped and bent with oscillating textures that rise and fall to create an otherworldly, psychedelic effect. In keeping with the cosmic theme of the record, Mendonsa on the title track arpeggiates airy, spacious keys as the guitar slowly meanders through them as if it were drifting through space. Mendonsa’s dynamic sensibilities also help keep the songs interesting; one of the highlights, ‘E Major Blues’, shifts between extremely calm leads and loud edgier riffing with backing organ chords and hot guitar solos. During these quiet moments, Mendonsa’s guitar is warm and intimate, inviting you to lie down and rest. During the louder segments, the blues guitar soloing ratchets up the tension and excitement before descending back down, and the fact that Mendonsa is able to float between these two moods seamlessly is a testament to his ability. It is in these instances that The Universe achieves what instrumental music often strives for: to convey ideas and emotions in ways that would be impossible with words.
Though Mendonsa is definitely adept at engineering beautiful moments of sound, his guitar-centric approach can become a hindrance, and this is evident in both the mixing and composition. Throughout the album, it rarely feels like him and his band are jamming together as a unit; the drums and bass tend to just form a basic platform for Mendonsa to display his guitar work. The track ‘Anandamide’ suffers from this problem despite the fact that its melodies made it one of my personal favorites on the album. It features a repeated country western flavoured riff and dulcet solos that beautifully flow together, but the guitar never moves from the spotlight for the entire duration of the song. The drums and bass guitar parts sound boring and subdued by comparison, and the band members never seem to play off each other. Throughout the record, the other instruments can sound muted underneath the crisp guitar, and while this shouldn’t be completely unexpected, (it is a guitarist’s solo project after all), it at times feels like the songs were composed with the express purpose of pointing attention to the guitar playing. While there’s nothing wrong with that in itself, achieving that aim by relegating the other instrument parts to the side strips the songs of potential.
There are exceptions of course, such as the tracks ‘Folkish Three’ that utilizes a magnificently cacophonous dhol and drum kit combination to propel the song into an amped-up climax, and the second movement on ‘Two Sides of the Same Coin’, which couples classic surf rock riffs with groovy bass and fun drum fills with hand claps. These moments where the band really plays together turn out great, but they’re too irregular to prevent the record from suffering. Though it doesn’t completely ruin the album, it ends up being a noticeable flaw with The Universe Has a Strange Sense of Humour; while some bands might provide plain instrumental accompaniment to a talented singer, Mendonsa here has a tendency to keep the stale accompaniment while only switching out the singer for a guitar. There are other guitar-based instrumental rock bands, such as Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Mogwai, and Jakob, that draw strength from their ability to balance each part and allow every instrument the space to contribute. Granted, the more classic guitar-centric rock sound is Mendonsa’s modus operandi, but he’s done better before in his back catalogue. Even on the previous release by Blackstratblues, The New Album, though it was a rougher recording, it sounded deeper and tighter as a band. It’s fortunate that on The Universe Mendonsa brings improved melody writing and a sharper sense of sonic colour compared to previous efforts, and he really does deserve all credit for keeping several of these songs engaging solely through his playing.
Unlike many instrumental bands from the early 2000’s to today who have been given the now somewhat derogatory label ‘post-rock’, Blackstratblues is focused on creating music that is much more straightforward. While straightforward music isn’t necessarily bad, (there’s a reason “pop” music is popular), the lack of truly bold ideas can cripple otherwise good songs. In the case of The Universe, its music holds very few secrets to dig through and uncover– by the end of the album, its goal of “good honest music” stunts the impact it could have had. These are pop rock songs with blues and classic rock influences, and they generally follow either a predictable verse/chorus/verse form or at least have a repeated riff or phrase that the music will return to. Any musical idea presented at the beginning of a song is carried to its end– they might get tonal or dynamic tweaks along the way, but the ideas remain foundationally unchanged. To be fair, sometimes the structure does work well, as is the case with ‘E Major Blues’ and ‘Come Anyway’, but other times it’s just tiresome, like with the forgettable ‘Little Rascal’ which features some aimlessly ambling melodies that never really go anywhere. I would have loved to hear more experimentation within these songs and for them to be taken in new directions I didn’t expect; there is no track on The Universe that delivers quite the same emotional impact for me like ‘Ode to a Sunny Day’, (from The New Album), as it slowly blossoms when acoustic guitar and piano give way to amplified jamming and drums. Mendonsa’s focus on exploring single self-contained musical ideas within popular song structures still sometimes works well, but it’s not quite enough to sustain the record throughout its run time. Even when it is successful, it never feels like something completely new or groundbreaking– just a refinement of styles we’ve probably heard before.
While I certainly would have liked for Blackstratblues to push the boundaries a little bit more with The Universe Has a Strange Sense of Humour, ultimately it’s Mendonsa’s guitar skills that prove to be both its blessing and curse. The album as a whole feels too straightforward for me to say it’s great, but it would also be grossly unfair to say it’s bad. Though the album is weighed down with overly familiar song structures and at times bland playing, Mendonsa really does know how to write impressive guitar parts and offers a number of memorable moments. If you’ve been a fan of Blackstratblues and its style of instrumental pop rock in the past, then you will easily love this album. If you’re not, then this record could wear down on you by the end, but it’s still absolutely worth a listen for the points where it shines. While The Universe Has a Strange Sense of Humour doesn’t amaze, it does have me excited to see what Warren Mendonsa will do next. If he is willing and able to take his guitar proficiency and push it outside the bounds of his comfortable, established influences, then Blackstratblues could have the potential to make a lasting impression on the world of instrumental music.