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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1212

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Carl Verheyen: Atlas Overload -- by George Graham

(Provogue PRO 71272 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 9/18/2000)

The music business is full of outstanding artists who are relatively unknown outside of a small circle in their field. This is often the case with people who work primarily as studio musicians or sidemen. That kind of work often requires a greater degree of skill and versatility than being a solo artist or leading a band. But over the years, there has been a fairly steady series of albums by some of those versatile studio musicians, especially the guitarists. Lately, though, it seems that those recordings by rock guitar virtuosos are becoming less common, perhaps because of the general decline in the level of musicianship on commercial pop hits over the last few years, and decreasing interest among major labels in non-fad music.

Be that as it may, this week we have a new album by one of those unsung guitar luminaries, Carl Verheyen. The title is Atlas Overload and it's the fifth recording under his own name by this Los Angeles-based player whose work has been heard on dozens of albums and soundtracks, and also as a member of the band Supertramp.

Pasadena, California native Carl Verheyen took up guitar at age 10, and pursued it with single-mindedness, eventually becoming a music major in college and studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. While in the Boston area, he worked with some prominent jazz musicians such as Max Roach. Returning to California, he began working with drummer Chad Wackerman, a fusion player known for his stint in Frank Zappa's band, and bassist John Patitucci, later of Chick Corea's Elektric Band. During the 1980s, Verheyen played in fusion groups with the late Victor Feldman, as well as keyboard man Dan Seigel and saxophonist Richard Elliot. He became an in-demand studio musician in Los Angeles, doing session work with the likes of Cher and Dolly Parton, and is said to have played on the soundtracks for over 200 television shows. In 1985, he joined the British band Supertramp, which was re-organizing at the time following the departure of founding guitarist Roger Hodgson.

Verheyen began his solo recording career in 1988 with an album called No Borders and was also involved with producing guitar instructional videos. In 1994 he released Garage Sale and followed that two years later with Slang Justice which we featured on this album review series. He began to develop a following in Europe for his own band, and has toured there extensively, in between his gigs with Supertramp.

After having worked with a keyboard player in his own band, Verheyen decided to make his new recording a scaled down, almost live-in-the-studio production in just a power trio setting with his regular group, bassist Cliff Hugo and drummer Steve Di Stanslao. They create a fine album with great guitar work that lies somewhere between blues and jazz-rock-fusion, balancing a kind of earthy sound with musically sophisticated compositions, with a nice gamut of guitar textures, from acoustic to all-out electric, played on some of Verheyen's collection of 45 guitars. According to the guitarist, overdubs and fixes were kept to a minimum, and the recording was done on analogue equipment, without any kind of digital editing which is so common today. Though Atlas Overload is most likely to appeal to guitar fans, the songs are good enough to stand on their own, and Verheyen is an appealing vocalist. In terms of guitar style, this CD is in some ways reminiscent of the work of Eric Johnson, but this album with its almost live quality contrasts with Johnson's guitaristic flights and painstaking studio production.

Atlas Overload begins with Revival Downs which draws a parallel between the appeal of early rock music and an old-fashioned revival church. Verheyen looks to performers like Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin with their Gospel background as his heroes. It's an interesting piece than ranges from jazzy to almost Beatles influenced. <<>>

The following track takes a rather different direction. Chinatown is the story of a questionable encounter, while Verheyen and band creates a kind of swamp rock aura, overlaid with the guitarist's jazz-rock fusion influence. <<>>

An album by a player on the calibre of Verheyen would not be complete without a couple of instrumental tracks, and he obliges with three pieces. The first is called Nordenham, named after the northern German town where Verheyen and band have played several times always to a warm reception. The piece shows a little influence from guitarists like Allan Holdsworth, with whom Verheyen collaborated on an album at one time, and Texas guitar sensation Eric Johnson. <<>>

Rather different stylistically is the instrumental called Funkadiddy, whose title describes the beat, though it's hardly stereotypical of a funky tune. <<>>

The title track, Atlas is one of the album's highlights. Verheyen says that he had written the tune for Supertramp, but decided to keep it for his own band. The composition has a kind of spooky sound, supplemented by some additional guitar overdubs that Verheyen does. <<>>

Another standout track is Find Her Way, which was recorded by the trio without instrumental overdubs. The interesting composition moves between more introspective portions and a more rock-oriented direction reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix' more laid back moments. <<>>

With their itinerant life, many musicians have written road songs. Verheyen comes up with one for the current era of delayed airline flights. 9:05 is one of the album's strongest rockers. <<>>

A welcome change of pace on the CD is the acoustic instrumental called Mumba, on which Verheyen is joined by Cliff Hugo's acoustic bass. <<>>

The album ends with Wasted Blues a straight twelve-bar blues done with a kind of Texas boogie beat. Though Verheyen's playing is first-rate, as a song the piece falls short of other compositions on the album. <<>>

Atlas Overload, the new, fifth album by busy Los Angeles guitarist Carl Verheyen is a first-rate collection of music by a fine player who deserves wider public recognition, though his playing is fairly ubiquitous on records and soundtracks. Rather than going for a sound that puts the studio to full advantage, Verheyen and his band worked on trying to reproduce the sound of his trio live. It puts the spotlight even more on Verheyen and his guitar work, and it stands up well. He is a resourceful and tasteful player who combines his love for the blues with his jazzy background. He's also an appealing singer and worthy composer, bringing his varied stylistic background into the tunes.

For its sound quality, the recording gets about an A-minus from us. The mix is great, as are the guitar sounds, and I really like the clean, unadorned drum sound. But the dynamic range on the recording is a bit too restricted for my taste, making things a bit flat-sounding, with not much difference between loud and soft passages, and perhaps as a consequence of the all-analogue recording, there is some what sounds like tape overload distortion from time to time. But as a rock album, it's much better than average for contemporary standards.

Sidemen and studio musicians have a long history of making solo recordings, with varied results. Carl Verheyen has been consistently making worthwhile albums, and his new CD, with a more intentionally live sound than its predecessors, is one of his best, and should appeal to people beyond just guitar fans.

(c) Copyright 2000 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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