The annals of music history are overflowing with gifted guitar players whose egos prevented them from reaching their full potential: rather than being content to be exceptional members of a band, they instead create unexceptional records as leaders in vain attempts to prove their worth as solo artists.
Guitarist-songwriter-bandleader Chris Forsyth is the rare exception that proves the rule. Rightfully but somewhat reductively known as a guitar player par excellence, one listen to Forsyth’s latest double album, All Time Present, reveals that while his dazzling musicianship can always be taken for granted, it’s hardly the whole story. Forsyth’s albums—presented with his Solar Motel Band or nominally solo, as here—have always been evidence of a musical mind brimming with ideas.
Forsyth is joined on All Time Present by bassist Peter Kerlin and multi-instrumentalist Shawn Edward Hansen, both longtime foils; new to the group is Ryan Jewell, a sublimely talented drummer whose musicality is seemingly bottomless. With this group, Forsyth is at the peak of his powers.
The album begins on a triumphal note: “Tomorrow Might As Well Be Today” provides a kind of overture, presenting some of Forsyth’s most concise and lyrical guitar spiderwebs complemented by Hansen’s Mellotron and Jewell’s buoyant groove.
“Mystic Mountain” is the latest of Forsyth’s songs to feature his unaffected and increasingly confident vocals, a practice begun on his previous double set for No Quarter, 2016’s The Rarity of Experience. Here, over a hypnotic beat suggesting Levon Helm gone Saharan, the band’s syncopated playing swirls behind his finest vocal number to date.
“The Man Who Knows Too Much,” is performed by Forsyth alone with Jeff Zeigler on Onde Magnétique, a cassette synthesizer. Here Forsyth and Zeigler —who also recorded the album— suspend time in a sort of weightless, heavy-lidded haze of acoustic guitar, Wurlitzer, drum machine and what sound like Jovian radio transmissions.
That brief piece makes for an appropriate introduction to “Dream Song,” which opens like a reading of Roy Buchanan’s funereal and riveting “The Messiah Will Come Again” before snapping into action. Soon, Forsyth is conjuring from his Stratocaster a lively and eloquent solo soaked in an uncharacteristically robust, thick tone. Airy and eerie double tracked vocals by fellow Philadelphian Rosali Middleman (noted for her own fine 2018 Trouble Anyway LP as well as her work with basement boogie specialists Long Hots) stand in the midst of all the whiplash and gnarl like a delicate but stubborn leaf clinging to a branch withstanding the turbulent maelstrom.
“The Past Ain’t Passed” provides a necessary cooldown, sounding like the introduction to Richard & Linda Thompson’s “The Cavalry Cross” (which Forsyth has covered) stretched to infinity. If the Fillmore West had been equipped with a chillout room, this would be the music you’d hear while safely ensconced inside its dimly-lit comedown sanctuary.
Continuing the trend of recent albums, Forsyth again makes space on the record to reprise and revisit one of his older tunes, this time in the form of “New Paranoid Cat” (previously known as “Paranoid Cat”), a piece he’s been performing steadily since at least 2010. This latest chapter continues in the spirit of previous renditions, Forsyth audibly relishing the opportunity to ruminate on the song’s structure, as if the tune itself were a mysterious object in Forsyth’s hands to be carefully considered, meditated upon, and puzzled out. The piece’s gradual build, sustained tension of eighth notes, and breaks that tease at release achieve a balance of tight, stately minimalism and sun-dappled pastoralism unheard since Gastr Del Sol circa Camoufleur.