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Chili Peppers’ guitarist shreds into new territory

By Adam Hughes

Section: Arts

February 13, 2009

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John Frusciante has always seemed badly out-of-place in the Red Hot Chili Peppers. As the band’s guitarist and backup vocalist, he is responsible for a string of increasingly generic and commericalized albums, yet he has a deep love of experimental music..

His bandmates have a reputation as attention-grabbing superstars, yet he maintains a reserved, quiet public person. Still, he has played with the band since 1988 with only one short hiatus, and he seems very content to remain with them.

It seems that Frusciante has found a very comfortable place in his musical life. He tours the globe playing simple, fun music with his closest friends and racks in the Grammy Awards and the millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, he satisfies his more diverse interests with his prolific yet low-key solo career. Frusciante has released five albums, one EP, and one soundtrack since 2004, and his sixth, “The Empyrean,” landed in stores on January 20th.

It’s a shame “The Empyrean” has recieved so little attention from alternative audiences (it has peaked at only 190 so far on the Billboard 200). The music shows a solid songwriter with a genuine creative vision and the chops to back it up. It could be best described as a kind of psychedelic grunge, combining lush synthesizer athmospheres and strong melodies with occasional rawness and power. Unfortunately, the audiences it might appeal to don’t really bother with Frusciante due to his Chili Pepper connection, and it’s a little out there for the band’s typical fans. Still, there’s plenty of material to appeal to both groups and bring in some others as well.

At least, if they can get past the first track. A nine minute guitar solo based on a slow, shuffling rhythm, “Before the Beginning” is a bold statement that Frusciante is letting commercial aspirations be damned. I’ve never considered him among the top league of guitarists, and his playing on this album isn’t up to the same finger-flashing level that he reached on the Chili Peppers’ recent Stadium Arcadium, to say nothing of his superb guest stops on the Mars Volta’s highly technical albums. Consequently, I feel that the song could be a couple minutes shorter. Still, John is forgiven, because the slow, unobtrusive build up is quite gripping, ultimately keeping my attention fairly well.

Overambitious song-lengths are the album’s greatest curse. The trouble is that Frusciante brings a solid five minutes of ideas to every song; he just makes some of them last eight. Thus, “Dark/Light” and “Central” both end with several minutes of repitition of the same theme, breaking the flow of the album. At least “Central” has an energetic climax and some quality guitar work; all “Dark/Light” has going for it is a couple of slow, meandering themes toward the beginning.

Yet these flaws are small beside a string of powerful, melodic rockers with complex, string- and synth- dominated arrangements, each contributing its own qualities. “God” is particularly grungy. “Heaven” has a pretty melody as etheral as the name would suggest.

“One More of Me” features a shockingly rich lower vocal register, in contrast to Frusciante’s typically nasal mid-range. John seems insecure about his vocal abilities, coating much of his singing in echo and double-tracking. Despite this, he is very effective in a suprisingly wide range of tones. Most spectacular is his gorgeous falsetto, familiar in so many Chili Pepper hits and showcased on relatively straightforward “Enough of Me” — straightforward, that is, until an atonal guitar solo from the Smiths’ Johnny Marr interrupts its flow.

My favorite songs are the second and third. “Song to the Siren” is a cover of a Tim Buckley song, and though I’m not familiar with the original, the melody is captivating and made even more haunting by several layers of spacy synthesizers.

Yet, even it is topped by “Unreachable,” which goes through several great melodies and multiple crescendos before closing with a bubbly solo growing into one of best guitar passages on the album.

“The Empyrean” definitely has its drawbacks. The aforementioned descents to self-indulgence are one. The overpowering atmospheres begin to feel a little uniform by the end. And the lyrics are mediocre at best. Apparently, the entire work is a concept album, dealing with spiritual rebirth, unity with the creative force, internal heaven, and other themes already covered by myriad deeper thinkers. If you’re interested, you can read several barely coherent explanations on John’s website that say things like, “We’ve traced the cause of matter to something that required the preexistence of time, the principles of motion, space and many other things.”

Overall, however, “The Empyrean” is a very satisfying work, and it’s inspired me to take a closer look at the rest of John Frusciante’s solo career.

If you don’t mind a little outside-the-box music, you’ll definitely find some considerable rewards.

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