The latest album from Sean Shibe is original and rewarding; inspired and inspirational. And the more I play it, the more it also feels like a game-changer, the kind of release that could challenge any preconceptions about the instrument featured and open new avenues of writing and recording for it.
For those unfamiliar, Shibe is a guitarist who plays both acoustic and electric with equally stunning results. Live, I’ve heard him command rapt audiences into complete silence with the most delicate ‘unplugged’ repertoire; but in the same space, unleash sheet-metal fury on unsuspecting listeners with the hour-long electric guitar behemoth, Lentz’s ‘Ingwe’.
Before ‘Lost & Found’, however, the electric guitar had only appeared on one of his previous records, the superb ‘softLOUD’, which split the disc in two as the title suggests: the amplified half comprised works by three living composers working within the contemporary classical sphere. This new release is his first on electric guitar throughout, performing a perhaps unexpected but rigorously thought-through programme.
In his booklet introduction, Shibe cites William Blake as the key touchstone or influence on the album, and this explains the twin themes that emerge through the chosen pieces. Some of the composers personify a Blake-like status of visionary outlier, not only looking inward but also somewhere more cosmic, almost beyond their imaginations. At the same time, the repertoire explores the tension between innocence and experience (and those Songs of Blake give the disc its title). These motifs coalesce and dovetail around each other in myriad ways over the record’s generous 70 minutes.
For example, the only composer here pre-dating the 20th century – and by some distance – is Hildegard von Bingen, her sacred work (innocence) rubbing shoulders with more secular jazz numbers (experience) from Chick Corea, Bill Evans and Moondog. Modern reflections of Hildegard abound, as Shibe adapts a ritualistic chant from Meredith Monk, a motet from Olivier Messiaen and an ecstatic soundscape from Shiva Feshareki. Stately yet fractured works from Daniel Kidane and Oliver Leith explore hope and escape versus frustration and resistance. Closing out the album are the extraordinary layers of harmony and dissonance that make up Julius Eastman’s ‘Buddha’.
Alongside Shibe’s foreword, the excellent sleeve notes by Benjamin Poore dive more deeply into the biographical and technical detail underpinning these themes. My job for the remainder of this article is to impress on you what an incredible listen this record is. The innocence/experience duality is no doubt behind the album’s strange ability to envelop the listener in an atmosphere of both calm, and mild foreboding, simultaneously. But even if you played ‘Lost & Found’ knowing nothing about the concept or the composers involved, I think this uncanny air would survive intact.
After all, what better instrument than the electric guitar – with an accompanying selection of effects pedals – to suggest a trip from the light to the dark? By definition, it introduces distortion, corruption, manipulation. There’s a concise elegance to the way Shibe performs Corea’s ‘Children’s Songs’, giving the charming melodies a comparatively ‘pure’ tone but with a fuzzier treatment on the agitated rhythm lines beneath.
Leith’s piece, ‘Pushing my thumb through a plate’, was originally written for harp, and calls for notes to be ‘bent’ using the tuning pegs. On his electric guitar adaptation, Shibe can maximise the otherworldly keening of each chord. Kidane’s ‘Continuance’, specially commissioned for this project, feels like a distant, more benign relative of ‘Pushing…’ with its clarion, bell-like notes but ultimately fails to arrive at a resolution.
The three tracks written by Moondog appear together in a 10-minute sequence, seemingly designed to show off the versatility of the instrument as well as the virtuosity of the player. ‘Sea Horse’ is a short, sharp riff attack, after which Shibe lowers the intensity for the gentler, part-improvised ‘Pastoral’. Then the third piece, ‘High on a Rocky Ledge’, to some extent brings both approaches together for a transcendent mini-finale.
Ultimately, I think I was most astonished by the Hildegard arrangements. The opener, ‘O Viridissima Virgo’, perfectly sets the scene by showing you exactly what you can expect from the album as a whole without giving away its secrets in detail. Resembling an echoey organ drone, in what feels like a single sustained electrical pulse, it simply soars, filling its imaginary cathedral with melody. Brilliantly, when the second Hildegard piece (‘O Choruscans Lux Stellarum’) arrives, almost at the end of the album, the tune is a fragmented shimmer, over similarly agitated bass lines reminiscent of the other, less ‘innocent’ tracks we have heard along the way.
Plaudits to producer David Lloyd along with Shibe himself, because one of the elements lifting ‘Lost & Found’ from being a great record to a shout-it-from-the-rooftops masterpiece is the utterly distinctive, all-encompassing sound. It doesn’t have the dry feel of an electric guitar on a rock recording, simply plugged into the equipment and documented. Instead, you could swear that Shibe isn’t in a studio at all, but in a vast space, a grand acoustic (ironically) of all places, where the rippling sound waves just grow and expand from his amplifier.
Throughout the record, layers of guitar hover behind and around each other, giving a ‘multi-dimensional’ effect that perfectly matches the esoteric nature of the material. Even the pacing of the album is a wonder, consistently steady, content to let the tracks build gradually and work their unhurried magic.
As a lover of guitar music in general, I was thrilled to hear an album this assured. Listeners more used to Shibe’s acoustic recordings (or those of John Williams, Xuefei Yang and so on) will soon be seduced by this; alongside fans of guitar explorers like Michael Chapman or Daniel Bachman, Neil Young or Sunn O))).
It’s a record that makes a new case for its instrument in a similar vein to recent classics like Mahan Esfahani’s ‘Musique?’ (harpsichord) and Anna Lapwood’s ‘Images’ (organ) – and I can pay no higher compliment than that. Let this album find you.