The last time rock guitar instrumental albums enjoyed any mainstream popularity was during the 1990’s thanks to virtuosos like Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. The fad ended as quickly as it began around the same time the decidedly non-virtuoso ideals of grunge/alternative rock took hold. Extreme metal bands took over the mantle in the late 1990’s and early 21st century, particularly doom metal bands, but the form as a whole seems consigned to some niche backwater for fellow musicians to appreciate and casual fans to be baffled by. Thomas Nordlund certainly isn’t a member of the Satriani/Vai school of guitar playing and nor could anyone compare him to extreme metal with a straight face, but his debut release Divide Avenue does a first class job of appealing to conventional tastes while still engaging high brow listeners. Its single biggest unifying quality is how Nordlund’s intensely lyrical guitar appeals to the imagination – each of these eight songs has a vivid cinematic quality that was one of Nordlund’s avowed goals from the album’s first conception.
Many of the instrumentals have a mid-tempo pace with a rhythm section unafraid to hold down the bottom in restless, inventive ways. The music’s steady foundation opens the door for Nordlund’s guitar to sweep, snake, and wind its way through the sonic landscape and fill it in with muscle and color. His baritone has an unique sound that commands attention when it enters. Songs like the title cut, “Whiskey Rumination”, “Whispering Son” and “Iron John” have a variety of textures, but they all play out in a very deliberate fashion and never attempt supplanting Nordlund’s guitar as the album’s central instrument. The general mood of the album is downcast, but two notable exceptions are the aforementioned “Whispering Son” and “Ensenada Nights”. The former is a jazzy guitar work out with adventurous backing while the latter explores Latin textures with a light touch.
There is an experimental side to the album emerging, primarily, on two tracks. The first, “Rilke in the Rain”, is practically progressive in how it fails to observe most elements of cohesive songwriting while still accomplishing many of its same goals. Like a novel, movie, or short story, musical works observe their own narrative structures and seek their own resolutions, but this song proves that there isn’t one rule about how a songwriter gets there. The second, “Sagatagan”, is the album’s conclusion and has even more pronounced progressive tendencies. The song, in some ways, recalls Pink Floyd with its expansive musical landscapes and its creative use of space to create more drama.
Instrumental albums don’t come along often anymore and fewer still are memorable. Nordlund’s album is distinguished by many things, but one of its crowning characteristics is its aura. Divide Avenue feels like an album meant to last and a personal statement. There isn’t a second of filler to be found and even less pretention or self-indulgence.