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Crux album review

April 17, 2010

I’ve been listening to The Seven since Sounds back in 1990, and thus have been able to trace the trajectory of style as this project has grown and moved across twenty years of music. Producer/composer/multi-instrumentalist/visionary Kevin A. Smith has now carried the Seven banner forward into its third decade with his newest offering, Crux, far and away the most assured and proficient slice of aural joy to come out of the South Carolinian’s fingers. The particular brand of guitar-driven instrumental rock that the Seven purvey has stayed true to its roots, but there is a sense that Smith’s prowess as a guitarist and producer has developed to the point that he’s caught up with his vision, so to speak.

The proof of this pudding is in the re-make, on Crux, of “A Walk Across Nowhere,” originally released on Sphere of Influence back in the 90s. The song still has its recognizable lick—a hypnotically repetitive picking pattern that evokes Ghost in the Machine-era Andy Summers—and its guitar solo even repeats whole passages in a similarly round neck-pickup tone. But the whole thing feels complete in a way that the earlier version never did. Greg Dampier’s funkily loose drumming is one difference, but the fuller answer is that Smith has the skills and the studio to craft his vision in a way it deserves. The difference in the two versions of “Walk Across Nowhere” is the difference between a really good demo and a classic piece of sonic soundscaping. Crux is the fully realized version of the sound that seems to have been in Smith’s head all these years.

As importantly, Smith knows how to keep listeners interested. A talented musician, he is equally gifted in his ears, by which I don’t necessarily mean his ability to craft sound. I do mean that of course—the production on Crux is nearly an instrument in itself—but more generally I mean Smith’s sense of what makes a good album. Crux is more than a collection of songs; in the fashion of classic albums of the pre-iTunes era, these songs mean something more when taken together than they do as stand-alone entities. Crux is meant to be understood as a whole, and even though each one of the thirteen tracks here can be appreciated on its own merits, the experience of taking the whole thing at once, back to back in the purposeful order in which they’ve been assembled, is the aural equivalent of a multi-course meal at the table of a truly inspired chef. Because Crux is remarkable in its variety. The heavy riffs of the relentless “Freight Train Proselyte” are off-set by the folksy, McLaughlinesque acoustic guitar of “Simeon’s Wish.” “Analogue (Soil #4)” is a delay-drenched layering of guitars that has little in common with the frenetic data-burst of “Scaffold,” with its mid-song synth-choir break.  The fact that these disparate pieces create what is so clearly an organic whole is a testament to Smith’s commitment to craft, and of course, to his ears. Even the titles of the songs at times imply a narrative: “Worthless,” “Grace,” “Redemption.” Moving forward not just for the motion, but in the service of getting somewhere.

These are not small songs. I hesitate to drop into the clichéd “epic,” but as a broad frame of reference for describing Crux you could do worse.  “Epic” here shouldn’t imply length or bombastic pretension, it’s more the sound of the thing, the bigness of the guitars (and they are plural—I counted five guitars on one track before I stopped trying), and the finely shaped marble slabs of melody. “Progressive” is a better term, but that also carries connotations of tweedy Moogs and flowing robes—the excesses of “prog rock,” and what I mean is a judicious use of all that is good in progressive rock: complexity that serves the song, purposeful interplay of dynamics, fearless use of keyboards where they matter, and a glorying in the bigness of the sound, the grand epic sound.

And that’s what, for me, is the ultimate joy of Crux and of the Seven in general. Smith, along with guest players Jason Ridenhour, Greg Dampier, and Marc Norgaard, are serving the sound. While most guitarists working in this genre would list Vai, Satriani, or Johnson as their musical progenitors (and Smith can certainly claim a family likeness with those worthies when he really gets cooking), the guitarist/producer I’m most reminded of when I listen to the Seven is Trevor Rabin, particularly early 80s Yes-era Rabin. The “instrumental rock guitar” album all too often devolves into a shred-fest or a soulless clinic on technical prowess. The Seven are more interested in making good music, powerful songs supported by good playing and not the other way round. Smith has a true gift for melody, and he’s not afraid to put the melody front and center—these are among the catchiest wordless songs I can imagine. Crux gets under your skin, into your brain, into the singing soul of you. It’s grand and huge and necessary. The Seven are a seemingly bottomless well of glorious song, and if you’re smart you’ll drink deep.

Preview and order the CD here, or download it here.

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