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PROOF THAT WITH THE RIGHT EQUIPMENT
AND ENOUGH TALENT ANYTHING’S
NEW ALBUM FROM THE INVENTOR OF THE COOL SMILE
It is nearly four years since Ketil Strand exploded into our consciousness with his (R)evolution of Rock Guitar YouTube videos, highlighting both his incredible playing skills and the tonal qualities of the Axe-Fx Ultra. First off there was his versatility and his cool smile, both of which amazed the guitarists of this world in roughly equal measure. Then there was the small matter of this little black box that so perfectly reproduced last century's best-loved sounds. This combination was nothing short of a dream team and needless to say, we were more than happy to have someone spreading the word for Fractal Audio products so effectively. Neither Fractal nor the inventor of the cool smile have been idle since then though, and Ketil's second album, simply titled II, is valid proof of that.
Kicking off with Å Ja!? (Oh Yeah !?), a funky number featuring the unlikely combination of classic rock guitar and country banjo playing, Ketil then takes us into the realm of complex rhythms, a place where he quite obviously feels very much at home. 11-7 has nothing to do with the convenience store down the road, but rather refers to the two time signatures used in this track. It’s not just a technical exercise though – there’s real compositional flair at work here, with a complex but catchy melody that never quite repeats itself and a solo that Joe Satriani or Steve Vai would be proud of.
Final Version is an acoustic jazz piece that’s guaranteed to stick in your head, with its easy-going feeling and pleasant main melody, but it also highlights Ketil’s ability to incorporate a secondary melody that gives a completely different feel, without seeming at odds to the rest of the piece. This is definitely a personal favourite. After the up-beat rock of ? (What?), P M relaxes the mood with some beautifully evocative acoustic playing, underlined by a subtle fretless bassline. Slap Off then takes us deep into fusion territory, while Nothing You Can Do About It brings us squarely back into the realms of rock, but not without a few rhythmic twists.
With DADGAD we are back to the acoustic guitar. The name indicates the modal tuning used and once again Ketil demonstrates his penchant for combining time signatures.
Things get wild again with Overdrive, which shows Ketil at his explosive best before the aptly-named Repeat After Me brings the pace back down again, though there are still a few pyrotechnics to be heard. A two-bar pattern repeats throughout the whole track, producing a trance-like feeling, which is overlaid with some outstanding fretwork - there is some really technical playing here but it never becomes overpowering. Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Ketil is that he can play very fast indeed, but he doesn’t do it so often that it could ever become boring.
The last number on the album, Toccata from Organ Symphony No.5 by Charles-Marie Widor is the only one not penned by the Norwegian master himself. Whatever you think you might be hearing, it’s all done with wood and strings and an Axe-Fx II.
Which neatly brings us onto the other reason why this album is so interesting. Not only is the level of musicianship beyond reproach, the whole album was recorded without using any physical amplifiers – all the guitar and bass parts you hear went through an Axe-Fx II into Cubase (with the exception of track 4, where a Digitech Brian May Red Special pedal was used for the outro and track 11, which made use of a Roland guitar synth for the organ sounds). For anyone who owns a Fractal Audio product (or is thinking of buying one) this album is thus an inspiration and clearly shows just what can be done with an Axe-Fx II, provided one has the required skill, compositional ability and dedication, of course! Oh, and I almost forgot to mention; Ketil Strand is the only musician playing on this album. A solo work in the true sense of the words, then. So, the only question that remains is, is II worthy of your hard-earned cash? Å Ja! (Oh Yeah!)