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(Warner Bros. 46951 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/20/2001)
While there are literally thousands of new albums being released every month, every one has a story behind it. Few, though, are as compelling as the one behind the subject of this week's review. It's a recording that not only contains fascinating music -- some first-rate symphonic art rock -- which is interesting and rare enough in itself, but its artist, Jason Becker, has a truly remarkable story. The CD is called Perspective, and it is only now being released after having been made in 1995.
Jason Becker grew up in the San Francisco area to artistic parents who supported and encouraged young Jason to take up the guitar. By his late teens, he was already attracting attention as one of the next great guitar flashes. As a co-founder of a group called Cacophony, Becker brought virtuosic speed and technique to heavy-metal-style electric guitar, but like some others in the genre, raised it to a symphonic level with classical and baroque influence. Cacophony made two albums before Becker was recruited for the band of David Lee Roth, the flamboyant former Van Halen lead singer who had departed from the group. Becker got the job with Roth at 19, and though it put him back into simpler, straight rock and roll, Becker couldn't have been happier. He was proclaimed as one of the next guitar heroes in guitar magazines, made an instructional video, and was touring extensively.
But around this time in 1989, he experienced a cramp in his leg that left it permanently weak. When the condition did not improve, he sought help and was eventually diagnosed with ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease, a nerve-wasting condition that leads to progressive paralysis, and in many cases, death in three to five years. Becker continued to work in Roth's band, but his condition worsened, and by the early 1990s, the weakness spread to his arms and hands and took its toll on his guitar work. By the mid 1990s, the disease had left him unable to play, speak or with much of any movement. But the disease, as exemplified by the brilliant physicist Dr. Stephen Hawking, leaves one's mental faculties unimpaired.
During his period of ascendancy, Becker had become friends with quite a few rock luminaries, including Steve Perry of Journey, guitar ace Steve Hunter, drummer Greg Bissonette, and many others.
As Becker's disease took its toll, one of his musical friends, Mike Bemensderfer introduced him to computer music, allowing Becker to compose and also to play some parts with his increasingly limited movement. The result is this album, which is actually his fifth release. It was done in 1994 and 1995 when he was about 25, though parts of it date back to 1991, and the CD contains snippets of guitar parts Becker played on home and studio recordings prior to his disability. Perspective was released previously in Japan, but now six years after its making, due to the efforts of Eddie Van Halen, the CD is out on Warner Brothers Records, a most surprising development considering the almost complete absence these days of anything out of the commercial mainstream on the multi-media-conglomerate controlled major labels. A portion of the proceeds are to go to ALS research.
Jason Becker's story would be compelling enough, but his CD is fascinating and engaging, irrespective of that. It's one of the best symphonic rock projects to come along in quite a while, and it features some really interesting arrangements and musical ideas, in some ways brought about by the artist having to serve as exclusively as composer, employing others to play his mostly instrumental music. It's also a very eclectic mix ranging from baroque to cinematic to metal to blues to one all-choral piece. While some of it can tread along the edge of being pretentious, as art rock has been wont in the past, most of it makes for absorbing, often exhilarating listening.
Among those appearing on the CD are drummer Greg Bissonnette, bassist Matt Bissonnette, keyboard man Danny Alvarez, who is the most prominently featured musician on the album, plus Journey's Steve Perry, guitarist Steve Hunter, Mike Bemensderfer, who plays woodwinds, and Becker's brother Ehren who plays bass, and his father Ron Becker, who is heard on acoustic guitar.
The opening track is called Primal, which describes the sound of the piece with its mix of vaguely Eastern and jungle sounds. Jason Becker said he was inspired by Peter Gabriel's Passion album. It contains one of the few instances where the album crosses over the point of being a bit pretentious. <<>>
Showing the album's classical influence is End of the Beginning, which Becker said came to him in moment of sleep-induced inspiration. But it's basically a set of variations of Pachelbel's Canon, one of classical music's "greatest hits," as it were. The string section is synthesized, but the arrangements are convincing. Michael Lee Firkins plays the lead guitar part <<>> before the piece takes an interesting departure into the cinematic style of John Williams. <<>>
One of the pieces constructed around an earlier performance by Jason Becker is Blue, which he recorded on a portable machine in a hotel room while working in David Lee Roth's band. It's an improvised blues guitar solo, never intended for release, but the playing is quite strong, while the backing instrumentation, added for this album, remains tasteful. <<>>
The most unlikely piece on this album of compositions by a former heavy metal guitar flash is Higher, a choral piece in two parts. The first section has some fine singers performing music that both hints at the ancient, but also has some rock twists. <<>> While the second part was inspired by Bobby Mc Ferrin's work, and this section features some of the members of McFerrin's group at the time, the Voicestra. <<>>
Also with a large cinematic quality, showing some influence of the film scores of John Williams is Life and Death, whose title was inspired by Becker's own consideration of his prognosis. <<>>
It's back to the baroque for a piece called Serrana, which begins with Jason Becker's father Ron, playing a backwards guitar part, adding a bit of psychedelia, <<>> before the spotlight falls on a synthesized trumpet part which was based on a guitar line the younger Becker had played with his band Cacophony. <<>>
Becker admits in his liner notes that the piece called Empire is an odd mix. He said that he felt like just writing a stupid-sounding song, but ended up using that melody for this piece which he describes as a weird combination of peace and war. <<>>
The album ends with its only example of Becker playing his guitar with a rock band. The track was recorded in early 1991 for guitar compilation album. The song is Bob Dylan's bluesy Meet Me in the Morning, featuring a vocal by Brett Tuggle. Becker writes that by that time, his left had become sufficiently weak that he was unable to bend notes with the frets, so he achieved the same effect with the guitar's tremolo bar. <<>>
One can't help but feel the poignant quality of Jason Becker's CD Perspective. A young guitar virtuoso, with striking rock star good looks, is gradually robbed of his abilities by a devastating, debilitating, incurable disease, now reduced to almost complete disability, even depending on a tube in his throat to breathe. He's about 32 now, and says that after trying many treatments and experiments, his disease is not getting any worse, and he feels he might possibly be improving some. He has beat the time the doctors gave him to live, he remains positive in his attitude, and still enjoys the friendship and support of his friends in the rock world, who helped to arrange for the release of this unique album. In a way, Perspective would not have happened if Becker had not lost his ability to play his guitar. It forced him to re-think the creative process, and the result is some fascinating and often uplifting music, in the league with some of the best that the art rock world has provided.
Making it even more enjoyable is its sonic quality, to which we'll give an unqualified grade "A." The recording nicely integrates the diverse elements, from the choral performance to the well-restored home recordings of Becker. There's also a gloriously wide dynamic range so the full impact of the music can be heard, especially as it moves from the quieter passages to the full crescendo. That is also something that is very rare these days on a rock album, especially one on a major label.
Jason Becker's Perspective is surely one of the most remarkable and memorable albums so far this year.
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