Dark Matter is Brett Garsed’s first solo release since 2002’s Big Sky, and it’s well worth the wait. The Australian guitarist is well known in the guitar community for his peerless hybrid-picking technique, though associating him solely with this facet of his playing short-changes him greatly. Garsed is a highly versatile player - a seasoned veteran with a well-honed touch who can hang in a variety of styles. “Rock Fusion” is probably the best moniker to describe what Garsed does best, as he has a natural penchant for combining smart lines and chord changes with heavy riffs and tones. With Dark Matter, Garsed further explores this style, though he also displays a progressive rock influence that is more prominent than anything he’s done in the past, save for his work with Derek Sherinian and Virgil Donati. One constant that hasn’t changed from Garsed’s previous efforts is his strong sense of melodicism. From his earliest recordings with T.J. Helmerich through today, Garsed has always prioritized melody in his writing. On Dark Matter, many of the melodies and themes are almost pop-like, which lends an accessibility to the album that is rarely achieved in this genre of music. By augmenting that tunefulness with a heavy dose of prog riffs, jazz tonalities, and cutting edge playing and improvising, Garsed has crafted a high quality album that is the very definition of “Rock Fusion.”
Garsed is joined on Dark Matter by a cast of frequent collaborators from past and present projects. Featured are Ric Fierabracci and Craig Newman on bass, Gerry Pantazis and Virgil Donati on drums, and Phil Turcio on keyboards - all of whom leave their own distinct marks on the disc. Unsurprisingly, Fierabracci has a particularly big impact on the final outcome here, as is usually the case with any album he appears on.
Dark Matter opens with it’s title track; a great choice since the song can be seen as a microcosm of the overall direction of the album - highly melodic at times, wickedly heavy at others, with occasional injections of jazz phrasing and experimentalism. Garsed’s already over-the-top solo on this track is literally pushed to new heights by the well placed use of a pitch-shifter.
The next track, “Android,” is one of the most interesting songs on the disc. Garsed uses abrupt tempo changes to shift gears between a fast pop vibe and a smouldering, atmospheric mood. Garsed shows great restraint in his exotic, phrygian dominant infused solo, after which Turcio turns in a killer solo of his own with a cool, throwback-prog style synth sound.
“If Only” is the first of three ballads that appear on Dark Matter, the others being “Closure” and “Be Here Now.” These tracks feature Garsed’s most melodic and strongly jazz-influenced endeavors on the album. In the case of “If Only,” Garsed spans the spectrum from light jazz to heavy power ballad in one of the album’s best showcases of his depth as an improviser. His strong jazz-inflected phrases and darting legato lines closely hug the chords with a maturity that sets him apart from his peers. Both “Closure” and “Be Here Now” also showcase Garsed’s exceptional slide-guitar skills - a strong suit that is too easy to overlook in the face of his legendary hybrid-picking abilities. “Closure” has a certain Chris Poland / OHM-like quality in the openness and tone of the chords. Garsed’s solos on this piece are among his most lyrical on the disc. On “Be Here Now,” a buoyant west coast jazz mood is presented that slowly builds to a dramatic crescendo of heavy chords and wild playing, before dropping of a cliff to the original groove. The upbeat “Avoid The Void” gets a similar treatment - starting slow and steady with great dynamic guitar lines, before slamming you in the face with a deep metal onslaught. Again, Garsed ends the heavy interlude starkly to return to the head. This “about face” technique is used frequently throughout the album, and is further evidence of Garsed’s deepening progressive rock influence.
The award for the coolest groove on the record goes to “James Bong (license to chill).” Garsed injects some serious swing into his phrasing here as he locks in with the laid back rhythm. This track is also a great example of how Garsed uses just the right tones and effects to fit a given song. The melody on this tune is played with a very subtle hint of flanging or wah-wah; a perfect match for the mood of the piece. As is the case elsewhere on the disc, Garsed's lead tone on this track is smoothly overdriven and very clear, allowing plently of room for the natural dynamics he displays in his soloing. This song is further highlighted by Turcio and Fierabracci's fantastic solos.
There’s loads of incredible guitar work all over Dark Matter, but the one song where Garsed airs it out like nowhere else on the record is “Poison Dwarf.” He peels off one amazing sixteenth-note line after another on each of his two extended solos on this track, in what is easily the album’s best display of his hybrid-picking legato technique. Garsed’s skills as an improviser are impressive here as well as he works seamlessly over the tricky chord changes. This tune also happens to have one of the most memorable melodies on the album.
Dark Matter closes with it’s most epic offering, “Enigma” - a smorgasbord of unapologetic progressive rock. Garsed packs this song with soaring melodies, tight unison lines, tempo shifts, and superb improvisation - everything you would expect from a great piece of modern prog. As with “Android,” Turcio’s keyboard tone (and playing) on this track lends serious weight to the overall vibe. Bassist Craig Newman also provides some great work on this tune over the complex form, as does drummer Gerry Pantazis who shines with a nice solo spot. Fierabracci makes an appearance as well with a killer bass solo late in the tune that is one of highlights of the entire album.
While Dark Matter is definitely a fine vehicle for Garsed’s guitar playing, and is indeed one of the best “guitar” albums of the year, it’s also much more than that. Garsed’s attention to melody and dynamics, along with his production skills, propel this record to another level. Dark Matter is a highly polished album of rich compositions that are at once complex and listenable, delivered with amazing musicianship from a killer lineup. Highly recommended.
Brett Garsed - Dark Matter
Brett Garsed: Guitar
Ric Fierabracci: Bass
Phil Turcio: Keyboards
Gerry Pantazis: Drums
Virgil Donati: Drums on “Dark Matter:
Craig Newman: Bass on “Enigma” (Fierabracci - Bass solo on “Enigma”)
1. Dark Matter
3. If Only
4. Avoid The Void
5. James Bong (license to chill)
7. Poison Dwarf
8. Be Here Now