John Bassett - Unearth as reviewed on The Phantom TollboothUnearth is a great solo album. It's a break from John Bassett's typical work and an opportunity for him to expand different avenues of writing. Melodic, haunting, and soul-searching, this is one that will both please your ears and leave you with plenty to think about afterwards.

John Bassett
Label: Stereohead Records
Time: 10 tracks / 46:00 minutes

Since KingBathmat is how I'm familiar with John Basset's work, it's hopefully excusable that I was expecting darker, metal-influenced music (or at least some residual KB flavors) when I first began listening to Unearth. To the contrary, John's debut solo release is a new testament to the versatility of his abilities as a songwriter and as a multi-instrumentalist, because it is an entirely different animal – certainly not a KingBathmat clone, and entirely of his own design.

The project is labeled as "acoustic prog," though it isn't progressive in the sense of complex time changes, furious guitar solos, or prominent Moog presence. What keeps this album distinctly in the "prog" category is John's utilization of unusual song structures, meter changes, and heavy lyrical content. All of that comes packaged with a folk/singer-songwriter feel and shrouded in a distinctly psychedelic tapestry. It's a bold endeavor considering his background in heavier prog, but John has a versatile voice and the uncanny ability to write powerful songs regardless of genre. In some ways, this is a return to his days before KingBathmat, a fact that both undergirds the overarching themes of the album and also renders it intimately autobiographical.

The fade-in on "Stay Away from the Dark," Unearth's first track, is comprised of echoing piano and double-tracked guitar riffs. The atmospheric nuances of the acoustic guitar are the compositional heart of this album, and this introduction is the perfect first taste of the melancholic, reflective style of playing which characterizes John Bassett's writing. A soft melody, split harmonically between two acoustic guitars, marks the halfway point of the song, echoing the divided sentiment of the one who must choose between two artistic worlds: one of independence and creativity, and one of voluntary surrender. "Now don't lose your spark / Stay away from the dark," John begs the potential victim of commercial success, lamenting the fall of the artist who abandons creativity for the sake of padding his pockets.

"Survival Rate" is a song of isolation with a me-against-the-world/army-of-one type of mentality. It also communicates the sense of an immense emotional burden: "You better not let your mother down / You better not let your father down / You better not let your brother down / You better not let your sister down." The overlapping vocals on the choruses are beautifully orchestrated, somewhat reminiscent of a gregorian chant or a nursery rhyme. This is an "apocalyptic dream," John says, so perhaps the devotion to familial pride is retrospective in a world torn by destruction, or – more likely – the larger metaphor is that the modern world is some version of the apocalypse already. Either way, there is something dreamlike about this track – and the entire album, for that matter. From the spacey, mellotron-esque keyboards to the eerie, flute-like voice of the theremin, "Survival Rate" is musically linked to the rest of the album via that mysterious, not-quite-real quality. The unusual meter at the song's outro is a nice shift from its otherwise steady beat.

"Nothing Sacred" revisits the sentiment of sacrificing integrity. This is the most upbeat song on the album, excluding the possible exception of "TV is God," with some great drum work, strong vocals, and a prominent bass line. Here, John remembers the ones who succumb to the pressure of the masses, because in those individuals' eyes remains "a reflection of the truth" – the thing worth striving for, the very thing which they have sacrificed. The lighthearted tone of this song is ironic in a tongue-in-cheek type of way as John repeats his rhetorical refrain, "Is there nothing sacred?"

Nuggets of the album's larger truth shine through particularly in "Unearth," the title track. The sharp contradiction in the opening lyric, "I've been decomposing in an unreal paradise," immediately draws attention to the stagnation of ambition, to the fact that this imagined heaven of ideals cannot support the life for which it was intended. This track is soft, a passive sort of resistance to the victimization taking place. "You dig up the past and make things worse, and then you will see what you unearth," John sings, as if to say, "I told you so." He makes some big accusations: "You have the advantage yet you bight with stolen teeth / You take great delight in exploiting those most weak." Though specific organizations or people might fit this description better than others, the sentiment which John expresses is disgust for the empowered who prey upon the innocent – those who destroy simply for the sake of destruction.

"Pantomime" is another soft track, acoustic guitar riffs overlaying sparse keyboard and string patches. A soft synth takes a brief, pensive solo toward the middle of the track, moving in and out of guitars and vocals. "There is no left from right, error continual, and a fresh install is what is needed," John proclaims. The system of life is broken because it has been utterly replicated to the point where nothing is original anymore. Therefore a new type of invention is necessary – a reinvention using pieces of the past to construct a new future. He uses computer language to describe the state of the artistic machine: its coldness, the impersonality aimed at anything that goes against the grain. The harmonizing guitar outro in 7/8 overlays faint vocals, tasteful snare rolls, and ringing cymbals.

"Kylerhea," is an instrumental track in 5/4, the approximate halfway point of the album. John's guitar takes the helm in lieu of his voice, weaving a beautiful melody that is sublimely uplifting. This is a standout track to me for the musicianship it exhibits, featuring synth, strings, and harmonizing acoustic guitar lines that maintain easy listening hooks without turning the track into a mere placeholder. The music fades back into the drum line which introduced the track, and then cuts abruptly at the last second.

The first track on the album to feature an electric guitar presence, "TV is God" delves thematically into Guy Debord (Society of the Spectacle, 1967) territory – the idea that society has been inundated by its media to prefer passivity and to willingly sacrifice original thought. "After all, it's safe here" in this place where all the thinking is done for us. The soft guitar lines are intentionally soothing, like the lies we tell ourselves when we swallow processed truth. Drums and bass open up during sections of interwoven guitar and organ. The song is unsettling, not because it isn't beautifully written but because of how poignantly it recalls the intellectual danger media represents.

"Keep Dear" begins with the distant sounds of birds before the guitar lead enters in an unusually syncopated meter, moving in and out of unison with a second guitar part. This is yet another example of what John writes so well: two guitar riffs that move closely together yet remain divergent enough to add color to the final result – not unlike something Robert Fripp would write, translated to the acoustic guitar. A mysterious theremin melody echoes through the heart of "Keep Dear" before the bird calls return to usher in the next track.

I particularly love John's vocals on "Something That's More Worthwhile." Instead of just harmonic thirds, he moves in fifths and fourths as well, utilizing color tones to create a vocal collage that often borders on dissonance – beautifully so. I also appreciate the way the bass speaks prominently in the gaps where the acoustic guitars take a breath. This song can be thematically summarized in the following line: "Chase your own tail in hope to make amends, the carrot and the stick, forever it suspends." The self-imposed pursuit of happiness, the hopeless reality of constantly running on the treadmill, is the practice John describes as "[creating] a wish" just to "keep it out of reach." The electric guitar returns at the conclusion of this 7+ minute song to solo overtop another cyclical guitar riff. The end result is a wall of guitars, all playing simultaneously before concluding in a cluttered breakdown of sound.

The bittersweet "Comedian" is the final track on the album. An alarm clock, birds singing, and other city noises preclude the abrupt fade-in of vocals and guitar. A spacey piano line joins as well, recalling the melancholic sentiment of Unearth's opening track. "Comedian, your joke has fallen flat," John laments, borrowing the "fresh start" ideal he began in "Pantomime." Thematically, this feels like the perfect sentiment to conclude the album, which is so rooted in ideas of originality. Perhaps John is even ironically portraying himself as the comedian about whom he sings – a martyr of the trade, full of jokes to tell, but with no one willing to listen.

In sum, Unearth is a collection of emotional songs that all support belief in love, art, and society, collectively insisting that those things should rise above mediocrity. Melodic, haunting, and soul-searching, this album will both please your ears and leave you with plenty to think about afterwards. It's a deeply philosophical piece of writing – not a catalogue of despondent cynicism but an earnest evaluation of broken fragments. In that regard, Unearth is about the resurrection of the artist from the grave of acceptable norms that typify artistic expression, and being reborn as something entirely new.

I've rambled enough. Unearth will be officially released by Stereohead Records on March 31st, and can be previewed on John's website. For anyone who loves folk, prog, or indie music, check this one out.

Justin Carlton