A review of John Bassett, Unearth (Stereohead Records; release date: March 31, 2014).
I’m honestly not sure if my admiration for John Bassett knows many—if any—bounds.
When we first announced progarchy’s birth in the fall of 2012, Kingbathmat’s label reached out to us immediately. As objective as I’m trained to be in my own actual day-to-day profession (though, I’ve become firmly convinced that so-called objectivity is highly overrated), it’s hard not to be grateful when someone, some band, or some label contacts us. After all, it’s automatically a profound sign of trust, though always based on a leap of faith.
As reviewers and lovers of music, we’re, of course, not for sale. Still, we are rather human. Kindness and relationships make a difference in the ways we perceive artists. In no genre of music is this more true than in prog, as the audience matters so deeply to the music—its creation and its longevity. Whatever my many faults, disloyalty isn’t one of them. As it turned out, though, I didn’t have to worry about any false motives on my part. I was not only grateful to Kingbathmat for trusting us, but I also, thank the Good Lord, really liked their music as well as their trust!
I also immediately came to like—personally—two of its members, John Bassett and Bernardo Smirnoff (who goes by many aliases and seems to be one of rock’s greatest men of mystery).
Perhaps, all four members of the band are wonderful. I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if this proved true. But, I’ve not had the pleasure to meet the other two. I do know, however, John and Bernardo—at least electronically—and they’re both truly great guys. Really truly great guys. The kind of guys I would love to spend some time with—maybe over a beer and discussing a meaningful book.
So, when I heard that John was releasing a solo album, I couldn’t help but be thrilled. I was immediately curious as to what it would sound like. Another Kingbathmat album? I imagined the solo album to stand in relation to Kingbathmat’s other releases much as I think of Chris Squire’s solo album from 1975, Fish Out of Water. It’s a critical piece of Yes history. The same, I assumed, would prove true of John’s solo album.
As early reviews have come out regarding the forthcoming release, a number of reviewers have compared Unearth to much of David Gilmour’s work with Pink Floyd. I’m sure that Bassett has listened to lots of Floyd, as we all have. And though Gilmour’s work is so iconic, Bassett is simply better and more nuanced than even the best of Gilmour. Gilmour is certainly amazing, and he always has that trademark sound, recognized anywhere. But, frankly, Bassett has a better voice, more diverse talents with the guitar, and better lyrics. This isn’t meant to be a knock against Gilmour. The guy is brilliant. Bassett is just better.
I’m not sure this comparison is worthwhile or fair, though.
As I’ve had the opportunity to listen to a review copy of the album over the past several weeks—and, I’ve absolutely fallen in love with it, listening to it at what one might call an addictive level—I’ve thought of many comparisons. This might be Dan Fogelberg without the sappiness. It might be Storm Corrosion without the pretension (as the ubercool David Elliott has argued, Storm Corrosion might be one of the biggest hoaxes on the prog community in years; Bassett is no hoax). It might be Opal or Mazzy Star with a male voice. It might be. . . well, we could keep going with this.
It’s worth stating this as directly as possible, though: John Bassett is his own man and his own artist. He’s the kind of guy who would, I assume, take criticism very seriously for about an hour or two. He might even feel a bit down if a truly negative review of his work came out. The next morning, though, Bassett would’ve totally forgotten whatever was written about him, and he’d do his own thing any way, whether he remembered what had been written or not.
Again, Bassett is very much his own man. It’s part of his immense charm. And, the fact he doesn’t even realize—at any level—how charming, interesting, and charismatic he is, makes him even more interesting. When I tried to tell him several months ago how important he was in the prog community (yes, I’m rather blunt and obnoxious at times—I’m sure you’re shocked), he just blew it off. “Brad, I’m just a Muppet,” he wrote me. Well, John, you are far more than a Muppet (though, I really like the Muppets, especially Animal, Sam the Eagle, and Harry the Anarchist).
So, the sum of it all? This album, Unearth, is a manifesto for being your own person, just as John is his. My best comparisons? Imagine the lyrics of a young Neil Peart without the overtly Nietzschean strain. Or imagine the lyrics of a middle-aged Neil Young, but anti-political rather than merely anti-rightest. Or imagine the social justice of Andy Tillison (a man of equally brilliant integrity). Put all of this together, and you have a John Bassett. The lyrics are not only well written, they are sung with absolute belief and integrity. Indeed, this entire album just exudes integrity. As I’ve written elsewhere, Kingbathmat “reeks of integrity.” The same, of course, is true for this solo album. Lyrically, Bassett justly rails against injustice, superficiality, betrayal, and every single form of conformism. This is a most confident and non-navel gazing individualism. The individualism of a Keats or a Thoreau.
Musically, the songs range from the sublime (this word seems to fit more than does “beauty” for Bassett’s music) and the delicate to the clever and the intricate. And, frankly, though I’m no musician, I’m as impressed with the keyboards as I am with the guitar. In the ability to pull every thing together, Bassett is a master.
I must state a dream of mine. If Kingbathmat ever released an album, a concept to be sure, that combined the drive of Kingbathmat and the pauses and reflections of Unearth, ably giving it an organic flow, the band would make an album that would not be just a great release of third-wave prog, but a worthy masterwork, an equal to the best of Genesis or Pink Floyd of Yes from the 1970s.
Please John and Bernard, think about it. I’m already eager with anticipation, just imagining what could be. . . .
To order, go here.