Kiwi guitar god appreciated
by Brett Abrahamsen
In a just and fair world, Roy Montgomery would stand next to Beethoven, Mozart, Zappa and Coltrane in the pantheon of great composers. Lennon and McCartney would be relegated to the realm of Abba and Spice Girls, and books would be written about Montgomery's greatness and daring.
It is indeed a symptom of Western society's ignorance that Montgomery is not widely hailed as a compositional genius. Even "serious" music critics tend to focus on the catchy refrain - not, unfortunately, on artistic value. Though Montgomery is a fine songwriter, his main merit lies in creating symphonic guitar-based compositions of overwhelming power. Many of these compositions stand as some of the greatest masterpieces of the 20th century.
Montgomery's first major artistic endeavor was Dadamah. Their lone album, This Is Not a Dream 1992, is a surreal masterpiece augmented with eerie keyboard lines, gothic vocals, tribal drumming, and Montgomery's soon to be signature guitar style. The album was (and still is) almost completely ignored, but it stands as one of the best albums of the 1980's.
Montgomery debuted solo with Scenes From the South Island (1995). Entirely instrumental, it established Montgomery as one of the greatest guitarists of all time. The music was haunting, creepy, and pictorial - qualities rarely heard in the more famous solo guitar albums of the time (Satriani, Eric Johnson, etc.). Though not a masterpiece on the level of the Dadamah album, Scenes was nonetheless an excellent and shamefully underrated album, and a titanic achievement for a single individual with merely a guitar.
Around the same time, Montgomery formed another group - Dissolve. Their first album was not up to his standards, but their second, Third Album for the Sun (1997), was frequently stunning. The improvisational tracks were cryptic and obtuse, whereas "Sunflower Search Engine" mimicked the classic psychodramas of the Doors and Velvet Underground. "Presume Too Far" shows that Montgomery could have been the greatest shoegaze musician of all time if he had wanted to - except that he did not want to. The song ventures beyond the "ethereal" mood common to many shoegaze acts of the time and into the sublime and otherworldly.
Montgomery's second solo album was Temple IV (1995), and it was another outstanding effort, this time imbued with exotic and tribal overtones. One year later, he delivered perhaps his supreme masterpiece, Well Oiled (1997) - a collaboration with Bardo Pond. The tracks on this album are as titanic as the universe itself, and can overwhelm the listener with sheer epic force. Much of the credit goes to Bardo Pond, but none of their albums reach this level of cosmic, transcendental intensity. The album - comprised entirely of unedited jam sessions - inevitably went unnoticed.
And Now The Rain Sounds Like Life is Falling Down Through It (1998) interspersed abstract experiments ("Kafka Was Correct") with melancholy singer-songwriter dirges ("In Our Own Time"). Dark and mysterious, the album had an introspective quality that made it perhaps the quintessential album to contemplate the meaning of life, It was, again, ignored.
The Allegory of Hearing (2000) returned to the instrumental format and featured another of his masterpieces, "Resolution Island Suite." This 17 minute track showcases his compositional genius, but at this point he was more or less playing to himself - no one was listening.
Silver Wheel of Prayer (2001) was mostly subpar (though still light years better than any Beatles, Smiths, or Costello album). The record was redeemed by the final track, "For A Small Blue Orb", a colossal symphony for the world (perhaps the universe?) itself. Meanwhile, the 1999 compilation 324 E. 13th Street #7 proved his worth as a singer-songwriter (the disc certainly fares better than James Taylor), but again, Montgomery had his sights set elsewhere. Melodies and lyrics were surely light fare compared with the cosmic meditations of "Resolution Island Suite", "For A Small Blue Orb", and the various untitled tracks of Well Oiled.
Montgomery took a sort of hiatus after Silver Wheel of Prayer, and was not quite the same after his return. After a tribute to Badfinger, he released the sprawling RMHQ: Headquarters (both in 2012): four discs of competent material but not a track that could stand up to his previous masterpieces. At this point, the magazines that had ignored him in his heyday were (to an extent) starting to take notice, but the quality of the work was mediocre and few who listened to the album were likely impressed. He followed the box set with Suffuse (2018), a collaboration with female singers, including Julianna Barwick. The highlight is "Landfall," with Liz Harris, aka Grouper - a genius of modern music, and Montgomery's natural heir.
He then released the solid - if not spectacular - After Nietzsche (2019), as well as another 4-CD set, which was certainly two or three CD's too many.
One can hope that one day the Beatles will be viewed as trivial pop entertainment while students of music intensely study the works of Roy Montgomery. By that time, pop melody will have mercifully been relegated to history.
Montgomery's latest album is Camera Melancholia, available on Grapefruit Records
Also see our interview with Roy Montgomery
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