Wow. That was my first reaction to the sounds of Unnamed Lands when the first strains of music came out of my stereo. I don’t believe that I’ve heard another recording so well produced. It is as though each note of this collaboration between two talented musicians was individually equalized and sound engineered. The music seemed to jump out of the speakers and fill the room, and I didn’t even have the volume up that loud.
That wow came after I was equally impressed by the packaging of the CD. The faux leather album design of the CD case that opens up to a beautiful 19th century map of the U.S. and Canada, along with the illustrations of wagon trains heading west, had me wishing for the old days of vinyl and a larger format album cover to do this artistic effort justice. There is also an illustrated 10-page booklet that fills in the story line of this 14-track CD, which is a musical interpretation of an 1800s’ journey west across our country’s opening frontier (see the article in the “Front Porch” section for the album’s backstory).
Unnamed Lands is the collaboration of Chapman Stick player Tom Griesgraber and guitarist Bert Lams. Lams is a veteran performer, a founding member of the acclaimed California Guitar Trio. Seeing the trio live some 20 years ago, I felt that their playing, though exceptionally well executed, was cold and lacking soul. Lams’ playing has advanced over the decades, and he puts forth a respectable effort here.
Unnamed Lands is built around Griesgraber’s Chapman Stick, a 10- to 12-stringed instrument that was invented around 40 years ago. The strings of the instrument are not plucked; rather, each note is produced by a hammer on, the placing of a fingertip firmly on the fingerboard to both fret the string and set it about vibrating.
Without plucking, the instrument looses a great deal of dynamics and color. The Stick is closely related to the electric guitar but sounds more akin to an electronic version of a harpsichord. Griesgraber has a great deal of talent and plays the instrument superbly, but the instrument’s limitations – the lack of dynamics, the difficulty in conveying a sense of breath – tend to detract from this musical effort. As well, much of what constitutes the backbone of the compositions are loop effects, electronically repeated musical phrases or riffs. In some cases these short repeated staccato licks are mesmerizing, like some of the minimalist works of Philip Glass. In more instances the loops were irritating, making me look forward to when they would end.
Lams and Griesgraber are talented musicians, and I’m eager to hear what these two might produce in the future. But through its nearly three quarters of an hour Unnamed Lands failed to engage or move me. I sometimes felt that the music might be suited to fill the role of a movie soundtrack, adding, but never stepping forward to detract from the action, dialogue, or storyline of a film.