May 4, 2023

All in all, this is one of the most entertaining albums I’ve heard this year. It isn’t going to change your life, but such is not its intention, and nor should it be. It’s a fine piece of skilfully written and sublimely played, good old fashioned rock music – and you’ll never hear me complain about that.

The name Kurt Michaels might not be one which sounds familiar to you. And I wouldn’t blame you, as it wasn’t a name known to me until I got the chance to check out this latest album by the man. But if you’ve been listening to rock music over the past few decades, you will certainly be familiar with a lot of the people he’s played with, or shared shows with – Chris Squire, Alan White, Denny Laine, Billy Sherwood, Tom Brislin, Ike Willis and plenty more. He has been releasing albums under his own name since around the turn of the century (that’s the 21st, not the 20th!), and has operated a band project under the interesting name of Kurt Michaels Continuum. This album is the first collection of original music he has put out for a decade or more, and that is something which certainly should not be allowed to happen again, as this is a highly accomplished and superbly played collection of songs.

The album consists of eight tracks, though I would subdivide that into two, as there are seven songs taking up about the length of an old school vinyl album, and one ‘outlier’, which is cut from a very different cloth… but we’ll get to that presently. The album ‘proper’, as I think of those first seven tracks, is a little hard to categorise, beyond the obvious catch-all term of ‘rock’, which it certainly is. There are diverse influences cropping up all over the place, with elements of prog rock, some bluesy nuances, and even the odd hint of spacey jazz popping up from time to time. Every song, though, ranging from four and a half minutes up to seven and a half, has a hook you can hang your hat on while you appreciate the rest of the construction around it. This is highly professional songwriting from someone who has done his time, and plenty of other people’s share most likely, in various bars and bar bands the length and breadth of the US, in outfits of every flavour from banjo-picking bluegrass up to orchestras, and all points in between. He’s paid a lifetime of dues, and my word it shows, as you get sucked into each piece within the first minute. Things get even better on the lengthier tracks such as Why Must Life Be Such A Fight, I’m In Love With That Dream and the nicely titled Relax…Nothing’s Under Control, when Kurt and his lengthy roll-call of accompanying musicians get the chance to stretch out and breathe in a way that shows them really inhabiting the songs.

All of this is without even mentioning an absolutely key element of what makes this album so enjoyable however – namely, Kurt’s guitar playing itself. If you’re a lover of the good old fashioned lead guitarist, who delights in playing a good meaty solo he can get his teeth into, or chiming out some nicely melodic lead lines, Kurt Michaels is your man. The music world is full of very worthy guitarists who like to make it their mission to be excellent without ever really bothering to step forward and ‘just play a bloody solo’ (The Edge, Johnny Marr, even Robert Fripp in a lot of the King Crimson guises). Well, that’s not what you get here. Kurt Michaels likes to get stuck into a guitar solo – he’s good at it, and he’s damn well going to do it. And the chances are very, very high that you’re going to like it a lot. It’s good old fashioned rock music with the guitar front and centre, just like Mama used to make – and it’s a blast throughout. Prog lovers are in for another treat with much of the lead work here having strong echoes (pardoning the pun) of Dave Gilmour, before he insisted on being called ‘David’ and when he routinely delivered some of the finest, and most effortless, guitar solos known to man. There is a lot of great use of backing vocals throughout as well, with Happiness, for example, sounding a little like a mash-up between Comfortably Numb and 10cc’s I’m Not In Love. There are weightier moments (opener Trouble, Relax…Nothing’s Under Control) balanced out with the odd frothier confection (Forever (So Completely) has a joyously cheesy Beach Boys vibe which fits the moment nicely), and it never gets stale, and at 40 minutes or so, never outstays its welcome. Contributions from Billy Sherwood (bass, drums, vocals) and Amanda Lehmann (vocals) are very much appreciated also, it goes without saying.

At this point, however, we must get onto what I think of as the sort of ‘bonus track’, as it is such an abrupt 90 degree turn into left field: the 17-minute, ambient guitar/keyboard exercise which is The Road Beyond. Kurt has done quite a lot of this sort of mood music over his career, and this piece is a duet between him and keyboard man Jim Gully, and is essentially a little like early Tangerine Dream (Zeit-era) with added guitar. It’s beautifully languid, and tranquil and relaxing in the extreme, but it cannot be listened to in the same session as the rest of the album for its best effect. While the main body of the album is good for getting behind the wheel of the car and cruising, The Road Beyond is best taken in while lying relaxed, with the headphones on and with no distractions. It is cut from a similar cloth to some meditative music designed to clear the mind of stress and to inwardly de-clutter, and it really does what it says on that particular tin. There is even a rather uplifting, ‘inspirational’ quote at the end to perfectly bookend the experience. I have no doubt that some herbal accompaniment might render this quite sublime, but I could not possibly comment!

All in all, this is one of the most entertaining albums I’ve heard this year. It isn’t going to change your life, but such is not its intention, and nor should it be. It’s a fine piece of skilfully written and sublimely played, good old fashioned rock music – and you’ll never hear me complain about that. It’s perhaps more like an album and an accompanying EP, with The Road Beyond the end of it – but if you are a lover of that sort of ambient thing (and if, like some of us, you grew up listening blissed-out to things like Steve Hillage’s Healing Feeling), that just might be the standout piece on the album. You pays your money and you chooses your genre as you might say, but overall this is well worth the admission. But not another ten years next time, please!