"Ron Jarzombek - Solitarily Speaking Of Theoretical Confinement"
Review by Marco Van Leeuwen

There is still life beyond the boundaries many artists and would-be artists impose on themselves and their approximation of art in order to facilitate commercial success and shamelessly gorge on their fame by way of vapid multimedia hype, and wallow in fleeting fortune gathered from teenagers emptying their piggybanks in sacrificial offerings to their heroes, before the newborn superstar’s second in the spotlight is cut to half a second in favour of the next big thing.

In this post-Napster world of prefabricated idols and regurgitated pap hacked up by angry young men and women not hindered by the sense of duty real talent imposes, out there beyond the fringes of the sales lists and popularity contests, some musicians still heed the call of genuine art, seeking not money or widespread adulation but finding energy and inspiration simply in the love of music and passion for creating and performing.

If one adapts and transposes the ideas of Francis Bacon, albums such as SSOTC can be said to rally against the idols of the marketplace (in Bacon’s view signifying the conformism-enforcing power of language, in this re-interpretation the levelling and growth-stunting influence of the majority of popular culture), rejecting ingrained, inbred and tired notions of what we, the consumers, should enjoy and buy. Rejecting idols leads us on the path to beauty, truth and enlightenment - for this project, Jarzombek appears to have attempted to contribute to such a liberating impetus in his own way by, oddly enough, imposing on himself rather strict constraints. Obviously, the difference with the constricting power of popular taste as previously mentioned lies in the fact these limitations were freely chosen and purposefully designed to explore and transcend the boundaries of music as we know it - an interesting play on the Kantian notion of achieving freedom through submission to natural and rational law.

The album is a continuous, 45-minute piece of guitar music composed of 45 fragments. Each of these fragments, some of them as short as a handful of seconds, none of them longer than three minutes, was constructed on the basis of some theme or music-theoretical notion. There are fragments using only minor chords, odd disrhythmic runs, musical expressions of anecdotal material and many fragments with variations on particular pre-designed note patterns (such as expressing a word or phrase by assigning each letter of the alphabet its own note via a methodical translation scheme). The liner notes contain explanations of the ideas behind each individual fragment.

The notion that we’re dealing with a single, internally coherent and consistent album-length song will not hold, but as a free-form faux-improvisation, the written-out and painstakingly-developed musical equivalent of a flow of consciousness - one theme or idea leading to the next, the final destination being less important than the sheer thrill of the journey itself - the 45-minute composition that is SSOTC works surprisingly well. Along the way, we’re treated to a dazzling array of musical styles, many of them rooted in rather heavy guitar riffs, but sometimes quite pretty, and with mindbending solos. Quite a bit heavier than much of Jarzombek’s previous offerings, here he is mixing Spastic Ink-like material (of equal or greater complexity) with music in the style he earlier explored in the drum-clinic pieces (co-operating with his brother, drummer Bobby Jarzombek) published on his website.

Despite the material being for the most part very complex and riddled with counter-intuitive rhythms and progressions, quite a few fragments possess infectuous grooves or enchant the listener with beautiful melodies - a substantial improvement over much of Jarzombek’s earlier work with Watchtower and Spastic Ink, which, although always technically impressive, sometimes appeared to lack soul. Some of the fragments - ‘Snuff’ and ‘Yum Yum Tree’, for example - would, disregarding their limited running time, make for rather nice self-contained songs. The excellent arrangements, mixing and production quite convincingly mask the disc’s self-published character and therefore, in all likelihood, monetary constraints.

More than once, I was reminded of Steve Vai in some of his more experimental moods, not because of a particular resemblance in compositional themes and styles, but because of the decidedly odd, sometimes silly but often infectuous sense of humour which permeates the material on and the liner notes accompanying this album, and certainly because of the fact Jarzombek exhibits a comparably jaw-dropping level of control over his instrument.

Any heavy-metal guitarist will be able to rattle off a list of albums which defined the sub-genre in which he toils: Yngwie Malmsteen’s ‘Rising Force’, Joe Satriani’s ‘Surfing With The Alien’ and Steve Vai’s ‘Passion And Warfare ’ will probably be on that list. In the field of progressive metal, a similar list of vital releases can be given: Fates Warning’s ‘Awaken The Guardian’, Dream Theater’s ‘Images And Words’, and, shifting towards the slightly more obscure, Psychotic Waltz’s ‘A Social Grace’ and Watchtower’s ‘Control And Resistance’. I would maintain that in either category, SSOTC would - theoretically, at least - not look out of place. Realistically, SSOTC is not likely to attain the legendary status of aforementioned releases, and in the case of the latter category of albums at least the episodic nature and absence of vocals will, to many ears, make SSOTC lack the consistency and epic flair which would characterise a truly exceptional and ‘complete’ prog metal album. This should not be surprising, considering the uncommerciality and true unicity of SSOTC is worn like a badge of honour by its creator, but on the strengths of its sheer inventiveness, technical perfection and kaleidoscopic instrumental adventurism, SSOTC deserves to be noticed by as many people as possible. If there is any justice in this world, a copy of this release will somehow make it into the hands of Joe Satriani, who will then invite Ron Jarzombek to tour the world as a contributor to the next G3 tour. Surely a night of Satriani / Vai / Jarzombek sounds like a little slice of prog / shred-heaven?

Conclusion: ‘Solitarily Speaking Of Theoretical Confinement’ is a guitarist’s guitar album. Unconventional in the extreme and very ambitious - a funny, exciting, rule-bending, boundary-breaking rollercoaster-ride of technically perfect guitar-wizardry. This album-length dithyramb on the potential of focused creativity should be on the required-listening list of every student of the guitar, and every musician seriously considering making progressive music. This little gem deserves nothing less than 5 out of 5 points.

Back to ronjarzombek.com