Felix Martin plays instrumental jazz-like music with a custom made 16-string guitar. Mechanical Nations is his new album, filled with a lot of notes and… not many reasons for people to like it.
His story seems most typical, predictable even, much like this album (more on that later). A self-taught child prodigy from Venezuela, Felix Martin went to the prestigious Berklee College of Music, then launched a solo career. He later concluded that normal guitars were limiting him. Seriously, Felix Martin’s web site oozes pretentious drivel like ‘due to his struggles in playing classical guitar, he imagined himself playing two guitars simultaneously, like a piano, using the tapping technique, instead of the traditional fingerstyle technique.’
So Mr. Martin had some special 13-, 14-, and 16-string guitars tailor-made for him. Bass players will take one look at how he plays these monstrosities and recognize the Chapman Stick, then wonder what the fuss is all about.
So What Does It Sound Like?
Imagine those fluttery intros or bridge intervals that Tosin Abasi likes to put into Animals As Leaders songs. Now imagine a whole song consisting of nothing but those passages. And as if that was not bad enough, imagine a whole album full of those! One might cry foul at dragging AAL into this , so we will give due mention to certain neck-tapping moments by Les Claypool of Primus, Tony Levin’s work in King Crimson or Billy Sheehan for good measure, but it must be emphasized that those guys write excellent music while Felix Martin simply does not.
The songs on Mechanical Nations lack introductions; Felix Martin just jumps straight into the groove. He will make abrupt, weird-sounding changes to new grooves that do not fit thematically. Songs like “Carnatt” and “Nomadic Tree” are the sonic equivalent of the buildings a colourblind child would make with LEGO® pieces, unable to make a single wall one solid colour. Educated readers might cry ‘but that’s jazz!’ The appropriate response to that: a single compound word that references the excrement of a male bovine farm animal.
More than a few songs on Mechanical Nations end abruptly. Apparently Felix Martin has no sense of catharsis, seeing no need to resolve the musical tension he builds up in a song. He shows off his technique by hammering on and hammering off a few grooves for three to five minutes, and then just stops.
Of course, he does not rely on the thunkity flutter flutter plonk plonk plonk groove alone, no. He will also introduce some cheesy high-pitched guitar bends, ostensibly to add color. These occur with annoying regularity in “Da Cat House,” perhaps Martin’s lame attempt at adding cat sounds to make a song evocative of something other than his ego. He added a few low-pitched bends too, evoking the ‘brown note’ from South Park. Far from cute, these gestures irritate the ears; even Suicide Silence’s ‘tee-hee’ moments are less grating.
Technique vs. Substance
Any music made by artists obsessed with their own virtuosity will contain this conflict. How should one display one’s technical skill within the context of a memorable piece? How much noodling does it take to ‘break’ a composition? So many artists like Felix Martin forget that virtuosity is not enough on its own. They forget that composition is an actual musical skill, one worthy of as much attention to and respect for mastery as instrumental technique is.
In trying so hard to play the guitar like a percussion instrument, Felix Martin presents so much technique and no significant amount of artistic direction on Mechanical Nations. Some ‘yay-sayers’ will point out Martin’s influence from his South American background and the need to be ‘open-minded’ to the possibilities that he brings to his sound, implying that one must have a background in diverse kinds of music to appreciate Mechanical Nations as it deserves to be. Other reviews said that about this album, and they are wrong. It is up to the artist to combine influences, vision, and technique into a cohesive whole that will make sense to listeners. If listeners fail to connect with Mechanical Nations, then the failure is not with them, but with Felix Martin.
Notable Tracks: “Flashback”; “Carnatt”; “Nomadic Tree”; “Da Cat House”. But they pretty much all sound the same.
FFO: Maybe fans of AAL, Primus, or King Crimson will find this interesting.