July 7, 2023

This album is 41 minutes of pure, damn-it-all perfection. I love it. Get it.

For all Matteo Mancuso’s ability on the guitar, he’s definitely a child of modern times. He has been playing live since he was 12 years old, his prodigious talent has been honed and crafted under a formal musical education, and he already has a massive reputation in Italy and his home Sicily – but for most of the world, he is known only from his online presence, more specifically his YouTube channel, which currently boasts close to 150,000 international subscribers. And the trouble with online fame, is that it’s easy to be reduced to a meme, a short video clip that passes from one person to another, and is then cast aside in favour of a cute cat video. But now, at the ripe old age of 26, he has recorded his debut album of guitar-based instrumental compositions, simply named The Journey, and it’s about time too.

It’s one thing to be able to play well of course, quite another to be able to write and compose. It’s one thing to display superhuman dexterity in a 30-second clip, but quite another to perform an impressive and immersive album. Surely all online shredders are one-trick ponies, and their dizzying technique goes kind of lame after a while? Even then, unless the other band members are up to standard, the album is likely to be a bit soggy? At the end of the day, we’ve heard it all before from the likes of Joe Satriani and Steve Vai, right?

Photo by Paolo Terlizzi (sixhats studio)

Wrong, wrong, wrong, all wrong. I have no hesitation in putting Mancuso right up there with the world’s top players, and this album is nothing short of stunning. He said he didn’t really want to stick to one genre, and he hasn’t; he’s just as comfortable playing rock and prog as jazz; just as happy on an acoustic guitar as an electric, equally adept at playing melodic ballads as shredding at blistering speed, and all of these styles get an outing on this record. His individual finger-picking style, and his core rhythm section of Stefano India on bass and Guiseppe Bruno on drums, as well as the other guest musicians, create a fully developed canvas for him to paint on, and the production is pin-sharp perfection too.

To illustrate: The album opens with the classic slow, rock riff of Silkroad, which starts with a decent melody line, which builds to some incredible virtuoso shredding, with a skilful and smooth backing. It’s excellent, but it sounds like we are heading for a Joe Satriani clone album. At just after three minutes though, the piece morphs into a prog-jazz acoustic guitar line in a weird time signature I couldn’t even count, before hard power chords come in over the top, and it fades out over tasteful, slow lead. The second number, Polifermo, which he wrote with his dad, himself a session guitarist of some note, is a light jazz fusion, in the vein of Sylvia or House Of The King by Focus, or maybe Santana’s Yours Is The Light. Keyboard player Guiseppe Vasapolli contributes a lovely piano solo, before Mancuso’s electric guitar work comes in halfway through. The three-minute Falcon Flight builds from a blistering intro with lovely echo, to a fast jazz-rock instrumental with tight stops. Some great, harmonising and driving bass creates a rocking backdrop, and the playout guitar solo features a kind of balalaika sound.

Then we have the first ballad number, the rustically but appropriately-named Open Fields, a lullaby almost, with super-subtle bass and drums, and some guitar harmonics dropped in. A succession of short riffs played through an echo box follow the jazzy chord changes and play off their own echoes; the backing is sympathetically harmonious, as the lead guitar gradually builds into a joyous cloud of billowing notes. Towards the end, it drifts into the rockier end of the Larry Carlton catalogue.

Photo by Paolo Terlizzi (sixhats studio)

Each of the nine numbers inhabits its own musical identity, without ever drifting far enough from the prog-jazz core to grate. Drop D (played in a non-standard tuning, as the name would suggest), starts in a smooth 6-8 before moving slightly into prog-metal territory, with some Gary Moore riffage. Blues For John is up-tempo and complex, but still communicates a kind of pub-rock vibe; Time To Leave is acoustic, gypsy jazz, bordering on the Flamenco style of Al Di Meola, with a light drumming touch. The joyously melodic Samba Party (not to be confused with Santana’s Samba Pa Ti!) employs a different band, with Riccardo Oliva on Bass and Gianluca Pellerito on drums, but there is no jolt in the production, just some beautiful guitar/bass synchronicity at the end, before a few seconds of acoustic playout. The album ends on the title track, an acoustic jazz ballad played on two guitars, with only the reverb for accompaniment. There are no flashy bits, no fast playing, just a perfectly-executed, smooth and relaxing ballad.

No matter how good the early numbers were, I really expected it to get a bit dreary and samey by the end. But it didn’t, and at 41 minutes, there is no chance of it outstaying its welcome. There is enough virtuoso skill on display, but also enough variation to hold the attention, and plenty of attention to detail – he has the melodic sensitivity of Carlos Santana, the outright blistering speed of John McLaughlin, the musical mastery of Steve Vai, and the Hispanic touch of Al Di Meola, but most of all, his playing has the voice of Matteo Mancuso. This album is 41 minutes of pure, damn-it-all perfection. I love it. Get it.

The Journey by Matteo Mancuso will be released on 21 July 2023 via The Players Club / Mascot