I confess I hit play with no little trepidation, and a fair measure of base curiosity. After Irene Ketikidi’s debut Martial Arts and Magic Tricks, all fuss n bluster and in-your-faceness, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. A Sky For All wasn’t it.
There has always been a certain tastefulness to her playing, but it’s rare for a player to shed the shred with quite so much enthusiasm. It’s rather refreshing. There are probably more notes on the opening track to Martial Arts then there are on this entire album. Yes, there’s still a strong Satch vibe about her playing, but it’s now in the sweetness of her phrasing thing rather than the note flurries of old. That’s not to say there isn’t the odd flurry, but they’re a bit Marley-like, as in Jacob rather than Bob: notes of shredfests past. The tunes themselves are direct and assured, subtlely composed and arranged with some aplomb but without insisting on attention, though I think there’s another evolution to come.
Irene has much greater control of her instrument now, especially in terms of phrasing, direction and dynamics, and there is some very sweet string-bending and some slippery slides that really help the melodic flow. Her sound, too, is much improved. It’s almost as if she’s listening more than playing … in fact, I’m wondering whether she’s gone a little too far!
There are some nice subtleties to the compositions going on here, especially in rhythmic terms, and in some ways I wonder whether Irene’s influence on this album isn’t more as a composer than a player, as where before her tunes came very much from the fingers, this album is much more … musical. The production is clean and uncluttered, the rhythm section reasonably on point, and the tunes have been given room to breathe. This is all to the good.
All this notwithstanding, Irene is still a guitar player, and her playing has undergone a radical change. I’m not sure what the equivalent of nominative determinism is for guitars, but there’s a part of me that says if you pick up a Telecaster, then you’d best be channelling Danny Gatton or mainlining Jeff Beck. Everyone else lies somewhere off this golden mean. I suppose in some ways replacing the superstrat with a standard tele is a statement of simplicity, a return to a less complicated time, when massive gain, a Floyd Rose and 24 easily accessible frets aren’t on hand to bail you out of trouble. I don’t buy that shit myself, but different guitars do make you feel different. And Irene certainly feels different on this album.
In brief, on A Sky For All, Irene mixes Beck, Grohl and Lifeson with Vai and Satriani, adding a few more unexpected flavours along the way. Her playing is tasteful and melodic, controlled and in the pocket. If anything, I’d say she was a bit too refined, and I suspect that live she’ll give herself permission to cut loose, and these tunes will blossom and come alive. It’s a good album, with some very good playing on it, but when Irene really finds her voice, and I don’t think she’s far off, there’s going to be some fine, fine music in the offing.
A Church For All
Naked drums and bass (with a little rhythmic kidology) set up Irene’s There and Beckish first track. Some very nice phrasing, using string bends, slides, chokes and some sweet damping. There’s space enough for the semi-melody/solo to build and develop, though I wondered at first whether some of her recent work has made her shy away from taking this track by the scruff of the neck, but after a third listen it’s making more sense. The 2112-era Alex Lifeson coda sounds like it’s not quite right at first, either, but then she glues everything together at the last.
Perhaps more familiar Vai/Satriani ballad territory, though again the chorus doesn’t quite take flight like it might have. This is a marginal point, mind. She keeps almost cutting loose, but …
Hide & Shake
Sweet, muted blues a la Guitar Shop, with just a hint of Charlie Hunter, before it morphs into a platform where really, really … this, surely, was the track to cut apart with the attitude we know is there … it’s asking for it.
Perhaps the most Satch-like compositionally and melodically, Irene just leans into this nicely … the lead could perhaps cut a little more, but this is her at her most comfortable, laying cascading lines on top of a rhythm section who seem to be channelling Metallica.
She-e Choose Dye
This could be Dave Grohl. It’s a nice riff, but I’m not convinced by the slide (provided by Babis Tyropoulos), though the last few bars are nice.
Nicely grooving riff, with some nice double-stops work, and then, all of a sudden, we are almost back in Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop (though no voice-overs, you’ll be glad to hear). A really sweet breakdown to lead us out and into … a slightly Becker-esque arpeggio sequence, a bit of Dream Theater (you know, that solo section bit with clean, delay-sodden guitars underneath a rolling avalanche of lead guitar) … and back to Jeff. And round we go again!
Last up we have a tune that I’m not sure can quite make its mind. A bit of Grohl again, a bit of, is that Rage Against The Machine? All topped by the newly Beck’d Irene, a rather odd semi-reggae coda and then this lead line I can’t quite put my finger on.
All told, it’s an assured, mature and controlled answer to the notoriously difficult second album, but slightly lacking in attitude. I rather suspect that album number three is going to be a masterclass.