The solo debut of James Brooks, Land Observations: Roman Roads IV-XI, is one of the finest guitar albums I have heard this year. Brooks is a gifted player, yet he never showboats. One of the key elements of it is the way the songs reveal more of themselves upon successive listens. Like the proverbial layers of an onion, the more one listens to Land Observations, the more of Brooks’ brilliance we discover.
Before getting to the music though, a little introduction to who James Brooks is, and what this disc represents might help. Although this is his solo debut, he is no newcomer to the scene. Brooks’ previous band was called Appliance, and they recorded four albums for the Mute label.
Evidently a large part of the album was recorded at his home in Hackney, East London. The title Roman Roads is quite literal, and refers to the ancient roads that were built by the Romans centuries ago. Brooks spent a considerable amount of time researching the roads, some of which ran just outside of his house. Each track on the album is a musical homage to these roads, and to historical events associated with them. It is a fascinating idea for a musical project, and adds an intriguing level of depth to these eight instrumental pieces.
In the early ‘70s there were some incredible German bands who made what came to be known as “Krautrock.” As practiced by groups such as Can, Kraftwerk, and Cluster (among others), the beauty of repetition was a often a key ingredient. Although I would never classify Land Observations as Krautrock, the recurring themes Brooks uses are one of the album’s most notable attributes.
Every song on begins with a very basic melody. Do not confuse “basic” with “simplistic” though. First of all, the melody lines Brooks creates are eminently enticing. As Philip Glass, Terry Riley, or even Karlheinz Stockhausen have shown us, there is a vast amount that can be said in the most minimal framework. The adage “less is more” could not be more appropriate.