Last November I happened to be scanning a community newspaper and saw a picture of a young guy playing an Ovation doubleneck. His name was Mark Kroos and he was doing a gig at a local church. The article called him “one of the only touring doubleneck guitarists in the world.” It referred to his “incredible tapping technique,” and mentioned influences such as Michael Hedges and Andy McKee. Well, that was sufficiently intriguing for me. Long story short, Kroos’s playing was impressive. But the Minneapolis church’s thin-sounding PA system didn’t—I suspected—nearly do him justice. Getting acquainted with his debut album And Grace Will Lead Me Home confirmed that.
There are, of course, masters who’ve taken the tapping approach to exalted levels—names like Emmett Chapman (of Chapman Stick fame), Hedges, Stanley Jordan, Eddie Van Halen. And purely from the perspective of hammer-on/pull-off virtuosity, Kroos—trained as a jazz guitarist, with three years in a touring ska/punk band—definitely knows a thing or two. With two six-string necks (the Ovation’s upper 12-string neck is strung and played as a six-string) going simultaneously, he creates a magnificent sound. Think sheets, waves, cascades of steel-string goodness—with shimmering treble lines and rumbling bass. Kroos’s two-fisted playing perhaps has more in common with the piano than the guitar— really and truly lap piano. Kroos also plays singleneck on a few items, to similar effect, and some of his tunings include Open D, DGDGAD and DADGAD.
Ten of the eleven pieces on Grace are Kroos’s own, and most of them don’t rely so much on through-composed melodies as nugget-sized figurations that repeat and evolve. I kept thinking that Kroos the composer may owe at least as much to Philip Glass as to Michael Hedges. That’s no bad thing, but it does mean that the majority of his tunes bear a strong family resemblance to one another. It’s an attractive and engrossing family, though.
“Indigo Child” is dazzling and new agey (in the best sense of that genre). While not nearly as austere as a Glass piano composition, it has a certain hypnotic power. The treble part proceeds and transforms with splashes of bright filigree, while the bass line rumbles down below—growing more and more intense along the way. “Speed Limit Enforced by Aircraft”—which opens the album—offers a galloping, glistening high voice over a thrumming bass. The tune’s lead figurations (not really melodies) switch between right and left hand. Not everything is hammered, though. Kroos finds time for a little picking and strumming, as well.
In “Tide Pools of Monterey” Kroos starts in a similar vein of repeated quicksilver figures up above, with rich chords marching below. Then, without warning, the bass line breaks out in a near-melody that is ecstatic and enchanting—a hint of what might lie in Kroos’s melodic future. The heartfelt main tune of “The Redemption (Here You Are, Glowing Sun)” is a further intimation of where Kroos could be going when he stretches out a little more with full-blown melody.
It’s one of the great hymns with one of the greatest tunes ever written that makes for a wonderful finale, “Amazing Grace.” It’s spare, powerful, haunting—a first-class arrangement. I’m hoping that he’ll tackle more covers like this in future albums. How about “The Water Is Wide”?
As I mentioned above, the church PA didn’t seem to do Kroos justice. But the big, rich, immersive recording quality on this CD definitely does; you can go swimming in this guitar sound. Kroos’s Ovation doubleneck sounds splendid, practically orchestral. Much of the effect is due to his technique of separating the two signals from the individual necks’ pickups.
There are lots of great young steel-string guitarists out there, and only time will tell if Mark Kroos climbs up that ladder. There’s little doubt, however, that he has most of the tools he needs to make the ascent.