FOCUS // Delving into Matt Calvert: a brief exploration of Typewritten and musicianship

What makes a virtuoso; an incredible musician? Query google, “world’s greatest guitarist”, and doubtless your browser will be awash with well-maned men sicking up harmonic minor scales, gurning into the abyss. Granted there are exceptions, but since the common denominator falls consistently to vapid technical skill you have to ask if that’s the true benchmark – does that give distinction between musical talent and sport? And I have the same attitude most prog fans do to sport so there’s no nestled compliments there…

Jazz educator Adam Neely raises an interesting division between physical and conceptual virtuosity; interpreted down roughly to a wee sentence: “the mark of talent in a musician is, to some level, in the thought put into a performance”. And that, I suppose, is a suspiciously perfect segue into my argument for Matt Calvert as one of our time’s most genial, virtuosic guitar minds – musical minds at that!

As a trapped tiger (A band we might emphasise he is still a part of), Calvert has spent a decade recklessly emancipating conceptions and boundaries, his work innovating around the prescribed sounds and roles which guitar bears within a rock band context, and not without a generous sprinkling of technical ability (or synths). In, singular jazz/electro/math trio, Strobes, off-kilter groovenoodles explode from his fingers, staining never before heard epitaphs. Evil ex, a desperately unheard solo venture, viciously deconstructing and gorgeously reassembling rock and electronica, has birthed some of the most visionary guitar music I know. Hell, the man is in charge of Goldie’s live set! Typewritten is no less special.

Siding the usual swathes of synths and glitch-ridden post-production but retaining, though, his ideas and ethos, the record embraces and exploits entirely acoustic instrumentation. Nobody is making music like this. As if the textural acoustics of compositional-ambient were raised a dimension and invigorated in the way of detailed, flawless arrangement, Typewritten conjures Matt’s spirit – the ear for detail, the singular sense of melody, the genius for orchestration and sound – compositing it into an acoustic framework as naturally as if one of distorted guitars and skittering keyboards.

  • Subject One: ‘Mute Heart’, the opener. Exploring permutations of an original guitar line, ‘Mute Heart’ rearranges and wondrously counterpoints, deftly distributing lines through multiple voices. It knows how sound works and how to have colour and variance and beauty in sound, for all its solely acoustic “limitations”.
  • Subject Two: ‘Nothing to envy’. Damn. Building early from an almost Aphexesque instance of hocket (splitting a central line across voices) the track creeps forward, moody, unsettled and writhing. By the caging of this organic glitch, ‘Nothing to envy’ blossoms forth magnificently but pulls away as sharply as it arrived, leaving a taste as sour and unresolved as its tone.
  • Subject Three: ‘12051’. ‘12051’ exposes an inescapable dance influence; hear how the guitar relates to the keys to the marimba – all playing from the same part – to the percussion, offset and interlocked – there is a boggling intricacy. Matt’s brief excursion to minimalist territory cannot be ignored, dropping to a sparse and very Reich set of phasing melodies before slumping into the track’s closing section.

Three Trapped Tigers through Strobes, Calvert’s guitar style has proved adaptable, his parts effective however detached or esoteric their context might be. But given how much more completely detached and esoteric Typewritten was slated as, in relation to his pre-existing catalogue, I really wasn’t sure what to expect. As much as guitar drives Typewritten , it never hogs attention; it’s part of the arrangement and that’s crucial – whether it’s eminent or not, it knows its part of something bigger, and that’s a lesson a lot of us can learn from. True instrumental maturity is reigning in technicality; playing *for* the music.

I struggled for a way to close this write-up down; well and good, I could just have expounded a puddle of cliché but that doesn’t feel fitting or authentic. What really strikes me about Typewritten is how unique a piece of art it is to Matt; it reeks of him, like a fingerprint. And that goes for Evil Ex, Strobes, the lot – I could recognise any one of those, blind, as his produce. To have assembled so darned singular a musical identity and a sound, one so synonymous with creativity, thoughtfulness and a certain beauty, is very much an achievement and Typewritten exercises all of those things. Which frankly is more than can be said of Yngwie Malmsteen.

However, all that said, I do, in retrospect, realise that perhaps ‘vapid technical skill’ may not be the sole common denominator in the conversation – and since Matt’s stylish hipster flick, by most definitions, thrusts him far below the threshold for “well-maned”, I suppose one could present an equally formidable case for the opposition.

Matt Calvert’s new album Typewritten is available now via Truant Recordings. You can purchase the album in digital format on Matt’s bandcamp page.