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.
“Before the Kingsland Road” opens the album with an elegant eight-note call and response, repeated in varying keys. The only accompaniment Brooks needs is what amounts to a bass line he plays on his guitar. At 2:55, this track succinctly introduces us to the magical world of Land Observations.
The Krautrock reference I made earlier is most noticeable on track three, “From Nero’s Palace.” To clarify my position in regards to those German bands, it is their brilliant use of repetition that I am alluding to, not any of the free-form “freak-outs“ they sometimes engaged in. “From Nero’s Palace” is minimalism personified.
On “Via Flaminia“, Brooks plays a very basic rhythm while “sprinkling” magical guitar tones over the top. I do not normally count notes when discussing songs, but there is something very special about the way Brooks takes a simple three-note figure, and turns it into an unforgettable melody.
The most upbeat, even funky piece is “Appian Way.” In the context of Land Observations, the track is so busy that it amounts to Brooks’ version of Metallica.
The album concludes with “Battle of Watling Street.” Like the ancient roads that inspired this record, the feeling I get here is that of a journey. I imagine that in his research, Brooks learned about a battle that happened on the road long ago. It is, like the album as a whole, a wonderfully evocative piece of music.
The packaging of Land Observations is also notable, as the drawings included are outstanding. James Brooks is a very gifted artist, and the booklet includes a series of pencil on paper drawings of the various roads in question. Altogether, I think Land Observations is a marvelous piece of work. The music, the drawings, and the concept come together to present an artist working at the highest level. The album is an instant classic in my book.