Last year I met Robin Trower. Okay, it was brief. Well, very brief actually. He had just roasted an appreciative French audience into awestruck admiration with a set that included many of his best known tracks from the days when he could fill huge arenas.
Despite the obvious effort that such a performance demands, he very kindly agreed for me to go backstage. There had clearly been a problem with the sound, not that I had noticed. As a result, my intended opening of “what do you think of my new local venue then?” seemed horribly out of place.
It is this determined pursuit for perfection that helped make Robin Trower one of the great guitar heroes of all time. As if to underline this observation, his latest studio album What Lies Beneath is living testament to his whole approach to his art. He is meticulous, often demanding the near impossible from himself as he pushes his playing to ever higher levels.
Yet somehow, despite spending several months locked away in a Surrey studio, the album still has a live energy and vibrant surge of instant electricity flowing through it. In short, and as corny as it sounds, this album is real. It is genuine, and because of that it has an air of undisputed authority to it.
The next statement will make reading any further somewhat academic. This album is by far and away his greatest achievement since those halcyon days during which he released For Earth Below, Twice Removed From Yesterday, Bridge Of Sighs, and Long Misty Days.
This is an album that oozes that old fashioned word, ‘craftsmanship’. Just as with all those crafts that seem to be rapidly dying out, Robin has successfully shown just what this type of approach can produce. There are many lessons here and they are delivered by a true master who, whilst being aware of his own legacy, has produced a timeless album of eleven mesmerizing tracks.
At his peak, the vocals in the Robin Trower Band were superbly handled by the late, great James Dewar. Such a voice is always going to be hard act to follow. Davey Patterson has been done a fine job of late, but on What Lies Beneath Robin’s own vocals have an air of calm authority that is perfectly suited to the tangibly thick, smoky atmosphere of this wonderful album.
It’s not the first time he has done this, of course, but he has never sounded more at ease and the end result blends together like a heady cocktail. Having said that, the album opens with a truly spellbinding instrumental, “Wish You Were Mine”. It would take a guitar expert to fully analyze that Robin Trower sound that oozes from every note on this luxuriously seductive opener.
The title track continues seamlessly and positively drips class. The two part “As You Watch Each City Fall” provides a massive reminder of just why this man still has such a reputation. This is like watching the aforementioned craftsman building a fine piece of bespoke furniture as he dips into some distinctly Hendrix like dream sequences.
After a blissfully atmospheric first part the second section ups the tempo nicely and features many of those trademark Trower effects as he seduces the sound from his guitar.
At this point, first time around, I was almost fearful of playing the album any further. Surely, the type of quality contained in these first four tracks cannot possibly be maintained? No need to worry. “Freefall” ups the tempo with shades of those faraway days when Trower-Power ruled whilst managing to remain relevant and fresh.
The album notes, written by the man himself, are a diary of the recording process itself. It makes for fascinating reading, highlighting just how important his art remains to him. This is a man who has been making music since the mid-sixties, starting alongside schoolmate Gary Brooker in Procol Harum, and yet his thirst for perfection radiates from every track, every effect, every line, and every blues soaked note.
The entry for December 16, 2008 records the fact that he was having problems with “Sleeping OnThe Moon”. He writes, “not happy with the lead sound, played all the solo work again, and much improved, I think.” With diary notes such as this, the effort piled into this album comes through loud and clear.
In fact, Robin Trower has launched himself into a relentless schedule of late. There was the multi-date tour that included that concert in France, a more recent fifty plus city tour of the U.S., and working and touring with Cream legend Jack Bruce with whom he released the Seven Moons album.
All of this was undertaken on top of the time and energy spent in the studio producing What Lies Beneath. When he was taken ill prior to a show in Greensburg in September this year he still managed to put on a breathtaking show, complete with encore.
Next up we have “Time And Emotion” another highly satisfying instrumental that arrives vibrantly rich in atmosphere. “Skin And Bone” again steps it up with a finely balanced track which also showcases the quality of the band around him.
Drummers Sam Van Essen and Chris Taggart, bass player Livingston Brown, and keys man Roger Cotton all provide the essential foundation. Another instrumental “Buffalo Blues” drips the blues that run through this mans veins. There is a positive ‘live’ feel to this one that makes it sound even more immediate, alive, and vibrant.
The album ends with “Find A Place” a track that Robin, having heard the tone he had achieved on “As You Watch Each City Fall”, re-recorded. The result is simply stunning ending this extraordinarily atmospheric and nicely paced album with another quality offering.
I have been playing those well known albums from the mid-seventies regularly over the years. When I do, I always get the same sense of respect with every play. There is little doubt that, What Lies Beneath, is an album with a huge style of its own, and is destined to take its rightful place alongside them.