Allan Holdsworth – FLATTire (2001; 2013 reissue)

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The turn of the millennium was a time of artistic resurgence for UK guitar lord Allan Holdsworth; with its stripped down arrangements and group improvisational freedom, Holdsworth got more from less out of Sixteen Men of Tain (2000). For his follow-up the next year, AH went even angular, crafting an album almost entirely on his own, providing all the instrumentation (aside from the late bassist Dave Carpenter on two cuts), as well as engineering and producing it.

That makes FLATTire an anomaly in the Holdsworth catalog, but that’s not the only reason. Deeply personal — Holdsworth was sorting out his feelings in the midst of a painful divorce — this is also a series of connected compositions as if they collectively made up a soundtrack for some movie. Which is what the artist intended, except that the movie itself doesn’t exist. That’s not an uneducated guess, I surmised this from the album’s subtitle, Music For a Non Existent Movie.

The imaginary movie concept worked as a vehicle to get Holdsworth to frame music around scenes, even if made-up, and not making music just for the sake of making music. In that sense, it’s a radical departure from Tain, which involved difficult playing. Holdsworth had also sold off much of his studio equipment and resorted to less-than-optimal synthesizers and almost no actual guitar to make this record. But his own experience and resourcefulness overcame the limitations, and an album intended to be intensely hued and immediacy manages to come off that way.

Given his limited resources, it’s pretty amazing he can coax sounds so evocative of orchestral horns on “The Duplicate Man” or classical strings on “Don’t You Know,” getting by with these simulations because he composed and arranged them in such a way to sound more organic than they really are. As I took in FLATTire to note the departure he took from The Sixteen Men of Tain from just a year earlier, I picked up on so many similarities, too: the abstract melodic development, the modular compositional style, and even if done only with his SynthAxe and despite not being played by a real guitar, those extended legato lines.

The initial four tracks can be though of as sketches, although Carpenter appears on one of them (“Eeny Meeny”), moody more than mechanically proficient. “Eeny” in particular runs through an odd sequence of chords that are undeniably Holdsworth progressions, anyway. More so than the other cuts, “Please Hold On” displays a minimalism, playing chords only where they are absolutely needed, and letting Holdsworth’s improvising over them become integral to the song.

As much as those skeletal songs have an appeal of their own, the album finds its footing midway through. “Snow Moon” is more overtly ambient in a cosmic way. Holdsworth shatters that mood with fake percussion as he solos and spars with it, with knotty playing not seen elsewhere on the record. “Curves” sounds most like a full band and a structured song and the programmed beats are pretty funky despite their sounding already outdated by 2001. “Bo Peep” is Carpenter’s more successful appearance, his standup bass defining the shape of the melody with Holdsworth, and even serving up a smidge of jazz swing to the song.

With nearly no partners with which to bounce off ideas and riffs — as well as the technical limitation — FLATTire is much better than it has a right to be. Conceived and realized under stressful circumstances, Holdsworth channeled his pain and restrictive parameters into a record that belongs alongside the artistic summit reached with the prior album. It’s where Allan Holdsworth, the virtuosic guitarist, trades that title for Allan Holdsworth, the master composer, arranger and musical conceptualist.

FLATTire will be reissued on May 21 by MoonJune Records.

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