Here on Work & Worry, we cover a lot of what could be considered traditional or neo-traditional acoustic guitar playing, usually rooted in blues and folk forms. Melodic ideas are often stated (or implied) with the high strings, and this is typically laid over a foundation of droning or alternating-bass… the beloved “boom-chick”. This is one, but certainly not the only approach to fingerstyle, and these days, the number of players who eschew traditional picking and employ extended techniques – right-hand tapping, artificial harmonics and playing the guitar’s body percussively – is ever-growing. CandyRat Records is home to many such modern-sounding players, several of whom also happen to be YouTube sensations (Andy McKee’s “Drifting” has more than 34 million views, as of this writing). It’s not surprising, since many of the aforementioned techniques, especially when played with speed, can be visually exciting. For all these reasons and more, this style, pioneered by players like Michael Hedges in the early 80’s, is riding a fresh wave of popularity.
Hunter Van Larkins is the duo of Ross Hunter and Owen Van Larkins, and their new album Myriad is one of the latest releases on the CandyRat label. It’s a completely instrumental affair, both players performing on steel-stringed acoustic guitars, with occasional help from a third guitar or cello. The overall sound of the record is contemporary, with ample amounts of reverb and electric pickup mixed in with the acoustic tones. The playing possesses some of CandyRat calling cards : the high-energy slapping and tapping on closer “Breakthrough” and the aptly titled “Tapestry” are a couple of obvious examples, and the entire record finds both Hunter and Van Larkins (literally) banging out percussive, groove-oriented parts… but Myriad is less about technique and more about composition and texture.
Hunter Van Larkins’ approaches to composition are myriad indeed, encompassing everything from jam-band strumming to intricate prog-rock grandeur, sometimes in the same song. The deft, telepathic interplay between these two guitarists keeps it all cohesive sounding, and though there are instances where one instrument might be delegated exclusively to rhythm or melodic soloing, more often than not, each guitar is doing some mixture of the two. Both players’ parts seem to be painstakingly worked out, and if there’s any improvisation on this album, I’d be hard pressed to pick it out. The extremely consistent approach to orchestrating the guitar parts can sometimes lead to the album sounding same-y, since the parallel guitar work fills up so much sonic space… this is probably what leads some to refer to Hunter Van Larkins’ compositions as “soundscapes”… but when these guys occasionally find a compelling melody, such as on the Benga-tinged “Bull On Fire”, the results can be exciting. Rather than both guitars being “on” at all times, “Bull” features a gradual buildup of intensity as the song progresses, a nice degree of distinction between the different players’ parts, and a catchy, slinky melodic motif.
There are many musical and geographic influences at work on Myriad. “Crystal Waters” has a recurring pointillistic theme that evokes Indonesian gamelan music, while a British Isles feel is present on “Fields Of Avalon”… this patient, lovely number puts me in mind of Stefan Grossman and John Renbourn’s work on their Three Kingdoms LP. I think one of the biggest influences on this young duo is probably the early solo work of Kaki King, who has quite a strong following in Hunter Van Larkins’ native Australia. The tapping sections on closer “Breakthrough” have a very “Kaki” feel to them; the long, strummed chords that introduce “Tapestry” act as a calm prelude to that song’s highly physical tapped section, much like the way that the spacious chords of “Frame” set up “Playing With Pink Noise” on King’s Legs To Make Us Longer. In my opinion, “Eclipse” is a direct tribute to the NYC-based King, with tempo, arpeggio patterns and cadences that mirror those on King’s classic “Night After Sidewalk” (from 2003’s Everybody Loves You). There’s always a possibility that I could be way off-base with all this Kaki King stuff, but I think the points above support my theory reasonably well!
Ross Hunter and Owen Van Larkins can play interwoven guitar parts with the best of them, and there’s no shortage of beautiful picking here. Being such a huge fan of acoustic guitar duets, I was really hoping to be more smitten by Myriad… as a whole, though, I found the album overly tidy in its arrangements, somewhat repetitive despite the variety of sounds explored, and definitely wanting in the melody department. That said, one man’s lack of melody is another man’s “soundscape”… so if you’re a fan of CandyRat Records and the contemporary, nu-New Age acoustic sound, Hunter Van Larkins shouldn’t disappoint.