R.I.P. Allan Holdsworth

02 May 2017 Comments Off on R.I.P. Allan Holdsworth


The good news is that “T2: Trainspotting” is scheduled to be screened in Turkish cinemas on May 5. Considering the fact that about a month ago I wrote a column based on the film’s ban, this event was quite unexpected and is a great thing for me.

The bad news is that jazz fusion guitarist Allan Holdsworth passed away on April 15. Holdsworth was possibly the true master of the guitar in terms of skill, speed, knowledge, originality and everything else. Names like Shawn Lane, Satriani and Van Halen consider him a major influence. Perhaps the only problem was that he was original in an unusual way. During the dinner scene from the movie “Whiplash,” the main character Andrew is asked, “How do they know who wins in a music competition? Isn’t it subjective?” and Andrew replies, “No.” Holdsworth is an extreme example of this kind of case. His work is not in line with what our brains have learned as music. We unconsciously have expectations from a piece of music, and Holdsworth cared about none of them. It’s not even right that I’m reviewing his works here with personal comments, based on what I’m feeling. Their evaluation should be left to academics with expert knowledge of music theory.

I listened to Holdsworth for the first time in the song “Three Sheets to the Wind.” After what I had read about the guy, I expected an overly talented guitarist improvising with crazy fast fingers in super complex time signatures that my brain just wouldn’t be able to handle. My expectation turned out to be an underestimation. When the song ended, I had the feeling that you get when an exam is finished and  you haven’t been able to even understand a single one of the questions, let alone solve them. I was blown away by how unpredictable Holdsworth was with his instrument. When soloing in the song, he constantly created new harmonic frameworks, only to abandon them completely a few seconds later and continue with something totally unrelated. Listening to this song still remains my most bizarre musical encounter. Later, I learned that the man had originally wanted to play the saxophone but picked up the guitar instead, so his solos are inspired by his initial desire to play sax. Having this information, replace the guitar with the sax in your head, and the song actually makes some sense.

Since my first encounter with “Three Sheets to the Wind,” I’ve occasionally fantasized over the years that someday I’ll be able to comprehend Holdsworth’s guitar and enjoy it to the max. When this fantasy kicks in, I always play his 1985 solo album “Metal Fatigue,” because it’s said to be his most accessible solo work. After so many listens, I actually developed a taste for some parts of the album. The opening (and title) track has a strong rock touch to it. Excluding the short solo in the middle, Holdsworth works well with the rest of the musicians. His subtle, yet intense improvisation during the vocal parts really excites you. In the second track, “Home,” he goes crazy in style. He plays the acoustic guitar here, and overall the song is very delicate and kind of relaxing, so his unpredictability doesn’t discomfort you that much. He starts to dominate the music in the next track, “Devil Take the Hindmost.” I think the shredding in this instrumental alone is enough to put Holdsworth among the legends. His sheer speed and the smoothness of the way the music flows from one chord to another are unrivaled. The unpredictability is still a pain-inducing issue, but much less severely so than in “Three Sheets to the Wind.” As for the rest of the album, I’m still working on getting into it.

Holdsworth became a member of the Soft Machine for a short period in the mid-70s. With him in the lineup, the band released “Bundles” in 1975. The album is excellent, due to having his perspective. In the first part of the opening suite “Hazard Profile,” the band goes mass jamming so that everyone can show off their talents. Holdsworth’s guitar is on fire, and he’s the beast that attracts the most attention. But he isn’t allowed to do whatever he wants. He doesn’t get to dominate because the bass is on fire too, and so are the drums. They force Holdsworth to play within a more-or-less consistent framework. His efforts become an essential contribution to the aesthetics of the larger musical endeavor, rather than remaining technical accomplishments that our brains can’t even call music. I’m not saying that’s the better way, though. We know the guy could produce music that would be highly satisfactory to a wide range of audiences, but he didn’t. He sacrificed fame and recognition, and played whatever his heart desired (except for the sax thing). Some liked it, some didn’t, and it didn’t matter; it was his way, or no way at all.

So he died, and two weeks later, some undergrad from some other part of the world, writing in some weekly newspaper, praises his artistic stand. What does that mean? I don’t know; I’m just really excited about “T2: Trainspotting.” Go do something else; and thank you for reading.