Robin Guthrie: Continental (Darla Records, 2006)

by Jason

Robin Guthrie ContinentalAs the guitarist for the legendary Cocteau Twins, Robin Guthrie was the principal innovator and architect of a sound that was later characterized as ‘dreampop’. Through his signature billows of echoed and reverbed guitars that floated majestically throughout the Cocteau’s long and storied career, Guthrie inspired legions of guitar anti-heroes who have all tried to capture that undeniable sound. Simply put, Guthrie is one of the all-time great guitarists, and the godfather of all subsequent dreampop/shoegaze guitarists, influencing the likes of Kevin Shields, Neil Halstead, Scott Cortez, et al. often, though, with a musician like Guthrie, a man slowly creeping into his middle age, doubts may surface about the artist’s current relevancy. Sure, Guthrie blew us away in the 80’s and 90’s with his unique guitar textures, but is he past his creative prime now, in the 21st century?

While such questions may haunt other aging rock stars, Guthrie shows on his latest solo instrumental CD Continental that he’s still more than relevant as a music artist…he shows that he’s still the reigning guitar anti-hero of dreampop. Continental is strong over all of its ten tracks, and frequently brilliant, both in the mesmerizing guitar tones Guthrie crafts as well as in the subtle but otherworldly melodies he writes. For example, the CD starts off with the distant guitar strains of the title track, showcasing Guthrie’s penchant for writing dreamy, wafting lines (a la The Cocteau Twins wonderful Victorialand). After a hypnotic couple minutes of subtle atmospherics, a tight rhythm section comes in to give more structure and propel the slightly ominous song forward. The melodies, though simple in construction, are eternal-sounding, and give the song an ethereal quality even in the midst of the drums and bass. “As I Breathe” is another breathtaking track, constructed with intertwining dissonant melodies that gently breathe into the listener. Washes of guitar flow throughout the song, giving it the feel of being a living organism. The song builds throughout its duration, finally fading to bring the listener back to the beautifully dissonant guitar lines. “The Day Star” equally shines, though more for its explosive climax. On this song (as on “Monument”, among others), Guthrie takes a more aggressive approach, mixing in crashing drums and solid basslines into his gloriously distorted songs. Yet, “The Day Star” still retains more of a dreampop/space rock feel, as opposed to a harder rock sound, due to the densely layered guitars playing floating melodies. Additionally, during the song’s most passionate moments, a forlorn female voice floats above the music, softening Guthrie’s powerful music just a tad. Finishing off Continental is yet another highlight track, “Pale”, with its gradual build into a climax featuring very subtle electronic beats, almost spiritual-sounding guitars, and a myriad of other sounds joining the song. And, the mention of these songs is not meant to imply that the others not yet mentioned don’t also capture the listener’s imagination. Whether on the lush beauty of “Crescent” or “Radiance” , or on the quieter and more free-form tracks like “Conquering the Romantic” and “Amphora”, each song shows yet another beautiful side of this master of atmosphere.

What makes Continental even more impressive in light of other soundscape/ambient artists is Guthrie’s tight songwriting. He never lets a song wear out its welcome, but instead allows the songs to come to their natural conclusion. Nothing is forced or laboured…the whole of Continental seems so graceful and at ease. The songs are complete (even without the vocal melodies Guthrie has worked with in the past), and convey a plethora of emotions and beauty packed into their comparatively short (for ambient songs) timeframes. Of course, what are perhaps the biggest highlights of a Robin Guthrie recording, and a delight for gearheads everywhere, are the perfect guitar tones he chooses to flesh out his songs. Guthrie utilizes a wide array of brilliantly executed guitar sounds on Continental, with each guitar line showing Guthrie’s attention to detail and great ear for music. The loosely paraphrased quote attributed to Guthrie is, “I pay more attention to how the guitar sounds than to what notes I play on it”, seems true on Continental, except that the notes themselves are patiently and gorgeously constructed as well.

So, on Continental, Guthrie continues to grasp firmly his title as a guitar god. In fact, Guthrie’s hold on such a title has never been in question, given his continued output over the years as the guitarist of Violet Indiana, his previous instrumental full-length Imperial, and his many production and collaboration credits. Still, there’s just something so reassuring and so right about the high quality of the music found on Continental. It gives Cocteau Twins fans a chance to gloat at the continued excellence of their hero, while rubbing it in the face of the pretenders in the music world. Continental is simply a great record from a tried and true master who is focused on his craft. It makes sense that Continental has captured my imagination so…after over two decades of consistently jaw-dropping work from Guthrie, we shouldn’t expect any less…

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