Five Surprisingly Tasteful Solo Albums By Metal Guitarists

[from MadeLoud / November 28, 2008]

One of the longest-running clichés of hard rock and metal is the idea of the gunslinger guitarist breaking out on his own with a solo album that presents his or her true artistic vision in its purest and most unfiltered form. Sometimes the end result is a simple extension of their full-band work but with even less restraint imposed on the guitar arrangements, while others have meant disastrous art-rock experiments that go essentially ignored once they’ve been released. Somewhere in between, however, lay those whose end results are at once shocking in their style and elegance yet entirely logical in their execution, showcasing a true musician set free to spread their wings.

Steve Stevens, Flamenco.A.Go.Go (2000)

He’d made his name as the right-hand man to Billy Idol, earned his millions writing such classics as “White Wedding” and “Rebel Yell,” and hinted at what his musical potential away from pop-metal on 1989’s Atomic Playboys. But on 2000’s Flamenco.A.Go.Go, noted six-string mercenary Steve Stevens assembled a veritable clinic on flamenco, Latin, and classical guitar playing. Some of the techno- and dance-flavored percussion loops date the album’s sound considerably, but Stevens’ playing here is like nothing he’d broached even in the extreme fringe jams of the Bozzio/Levin/Stevens albums. By applying his own forward-thinking shred sensibilities to a style firmly rooted in tradition, Stevens created an album no one saw coming.

Zakk Wylde, Book of Shadows (1996)

As Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist on 1989’s No Rest for the Wicked and 1991’s No More Tears, and later with his own band Black Label Society, Wylde crafted some of the loudest, deepest, most violent riffs ever devised in the history of recorded music. Both acts’ songs usually dealt in destruction, physical pain and death (often as inflicted by Wylde himself), but in between these two parallel lives he stopped to explore the Southern rock roots he’d hinted at on Ozzy tracks like “Mama, I’m Coming Home.” While the roadhouse rock of Pride & Glory wasn’t lacking for chops or substance, with Book of Shadows Wylde took the reins and delivered an album of string-backed ballads and piano-driven blues about friendship, love, life, and loss. The pain and death were still there, as were the huge solos, but for a brief moment they were all haunting reminders rather than constant threats.

Jim Matheos, First Impressions (1993)

As guitarist and chief songwriter for prog-metal stalwarts Fates Warning, Jim Matheos’ stock-in-trade had always been in wildly complicated pull-off riffs and unclassifiable time signatures as the foundation for ten-minute songs about guardians and wizards. When he set out on his own, however, Matheos paired up with cellist Eugene Friesen and violinist Charlie Bisharat and delivered something closer to a three-piece new age album. Employing some very unconventional alternate tunings and an extremely restrained acoustic style, First Impressions showed that Matheos’ ear for classical arrangements was just as strong as his skill with bombastic Iron Maiden-esque metal. Bisharat would bring his violin wizardry back for Matheos’ second solo album, 1999’s Away with Words, but by then the guitar god had moved towards a sound closer to full-band jazz experiments than to the understated duets of this first release.

John Petrucci & Jordan Rudess, An Evening With John Petrucci & Jordan Rudess (2000)

While 2005’s Suspended Animation was the onslaught of wild arpeggios and 256th-note harmonized runs everyone was expecting, this first release suggested John Petrucci may actually be capable of more than even he had already let on. In his work with metal heroes Dream Theater and prog freaks Liquid Tension Experiment, Petrucci had dabbled at times in classical and jazz guitar, but for this one-off album with bandmate and keyboardist Jordan Rudess, the metal was removed from the equation entirely. Recorded live in New York City, Petrucci seized the opportunity granted by the one-off concert to indulge every experimental whim he so desired. Considering the more consistently heavy direction Petrucci’s band was heading in, this album becomes less a live document than a fleeting portrait of a progressive guitarist with metal tendencies, rather than the metal guitarist with progressive tendencies, as Dream Theater’s later output would paint him.

Black Light Burns, Cruel Melody (2007)

Black Light Burns is really the revolving door outfit of former Limp Bizkit guitarist Wes Borland, whose work in that band often hinted at something smarter and more adventurous than the bottom-heavy riffing upon which so many Bizkit songs relied. Once he’d left the band for good, Borland was free to fully explore some of the 7-string alternate-tuning weirdness only occasionally used fully in his previous group. The riffing and power chords are still there, sort of, but Borland instead drives the songs with Buckethead-esque noodling and some very ingenious digital delay arpeggiation tricks. It’s tempting to say this album came entirely out of left field, but Borland’s style had shown elements of this space-metal all along. By teaming up with producer and part-time Nine Inch Nail Danny Lohner to create a sound complementary to his style, he was able to prove once and for all who was really the musical brain behind what was arguably the biggest metal group of the late 1990s, and that writing chart-topping riffouts was actually the easy part of his old job.