William Tyler – review

St Pancras Old Church, London
Imposing visions of natural beauty came to the fore as Tyler built an entire guitar orchestra from one instrument

Despite the headlines, William Tyler has fond memories of Syria. "I started playing one of my own songs," he chuckles, recalling a tourist visit to a pre-civil war basement bar, "but a Turkish embassy worker shut me down and said: 'That's not good, play Stairway to Heaven.'"

The drunk diplomats of Damascus don't know what they missed: Tyler's ode to Syria, The Geography of Nowhere, is a virtuoso guitar epic with Arabian undertones. In a candlelit chapel set for an instrumental solo gig from a guy who is usually playing guitar in the background for Lambchop, you don't expect much "shredding". Yet that's exactly what we get. Clearly underused in his day job, Tyler's fingers spin like threshing blades and his chords crash like sea squalls as he navigates two stunningly accomplished solo albums. These are intricate, densely textured pieces inspired by imposing scenes of nature and architecture – Angkor Wat temples, misty mountainsides and, when his inner Michael Cera creeps out, the odd indie dreamgirl.

Tyler describes his "songs" – they have movements but avoid the stuffiness of a recital by borrowing widely from pastoral folk, country and flamenco melodies, metal dynamics and ragtime swing – as "postcards to ghosts". The likes of Cadillac Desert and Terrace of the Leper King feel haunted by dusty deserted biker bars, medieval moat construction or, according to Tyler, "the tyranny of wide open spaces". Tyler is most enthralling in Country of Illusion, inspired by the grand folly of Heaven's Gate, "a four-hour western about the emergence of modern capitalism … not a date movie". Looping the sound of a Coleridgean pleasure dome exploding, he builds an entire guitar orchestra from one instrument, bowing, hammering and caressing the strings to a cataclysmic climax. It's always the quiet ones.

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Contributor

Mark Beaumont

The GuardianTramp

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