For all of my love for studio trickery and interesting production techniques, I will always be a champion of music delivered in its simplest, rawest form. Ben Tyree’s solo acoustic guitar album Thoughtform Variations may consist of incredibly advanced and technically brilliant compositions, but the entire disc is nothing more than Tyree’s guitar. No overdubs, no vocals, no other instruments, and there is certainly something to admire about how something so simple can still be so engaging.
The album opens with “Soliloquy,” which Tyree tells us in the liner notes began as an experiment with an unusual tuning. The standard tuning for guitar is E-A-D-G-B-E, while the tuning on “Soliloquy” is E-G-E-G-B-F#. While this may mean little to non-musicians from a technical standpoint, it allows the player to create different chords, resulting in a unique sound. “Soliloquy” works very well as the album’s kick-off, because it introduces many of Tyree’s techniques, including the use of harmonics and rapid-fire melodies. On both this track and “No Wrong Turns,” Tyree seems to be paying homage to Frank Zappa, whose solo acoustic pieces are rare, but among his most exceptional works. “No Wrong Turns” began its life as a series of bass lines for a jazz combo Tyree played with, but he rearranged the riffs for guitar. The song is broken up into several shorter passages, punctuated by slight pauses and changes in tempo.
One of my favorite tracks on the album is the Baroque-inspired “What May Come To Be.” Tyree said his inspiration for this song came from playing Bach on his guitar, along with Bach’s penchant for creating tension and release in the music; Tyree achieves this with passages that get increasingly dissonant before resolving them with relaxing major chords. The use of dissonance works quite well in the song. The following track, “Bish,” is a playful, jazzy number inspired by the way one of his friends laughs. It is easy to see the influences of both 1970’s Herbie Hancock and Earth, Wind, & Fire in this piece, which is begging to be arranged for a jazz combo.
The most touching piece is “David,” a tribute to Tyree’s late stepfather. A nine-minute adventure, it is broken up into several smaller sections, each consisting of different melodies that Tyree had played for him, to his enjoyment. From a purely technical standpoint, this is a very challenging piece, given its changes in tempo and complex melodies; that said, it was one of the songs Tyree performed live at his record release party at Rockwood Music Hall.
On the pseudo-title track, “Thoughtforms,” Tyree sought inspiration from his own surroundings when he lived in Harlem, across the street from a notorious crack den. With this track, Tyree takes the negative energy he felt and observed and transfers it into music, making this song the most intense and impressionistic one on the album. Some of the heavier passages are played with a ferocity that reminded me of Pete Townshend’s acoustic playing on both the “Overture” and “Underture” from Tommy.
Tyree demonstrates the effectiveness of his songwriting with “Dmanisi,” which he says was inspired by an article in National Geographic about an archaeological dig in Georgia (the country, not the state) where a human skull was found, predating existing theories about man’s origin. He expresses the journey of our species through the course of time deftly, using some very appropriate dissonance as well as some funky riffs that would sound amazing on an electric guitar.
The album closes out with “The Gatekeeper,” another musical illustration, this time of a figure Tyree refers to as being the guardian of “the veil between that which is known and unknown: the world behind the scenes, which guides and informs the realities we experience.” It is a mystical image, played darkly and with an aura of mystery and respect, but never brooding. The song works really well as a closer, leaving the listener with thoughts on how to perceive the world.
“I want people to see the world in a different way. Sound has that power,” Tyree said. “The listener can derive their own meaning and share that […] All I can hope for is that people will feel something nourishing in their minds and hearts and bring that nourishment into their everyday lives. This is why music is so valuable: it nourishes.”