(All Album Reviews by notallwhowander)
Let me preface this review by saying that I knew nothing of Sean Malone before I picked up Gordian Knot. What attracted me to the record was the fact that it featured the Chapman Stick as the primary instrument, and the hubub regarding it on the Progressive Ears discussion board. So I ordered the CD from my local record store and found I've had no regrets.
In overview, the music of Gordian Knot seems to explore that area of progressive rock that was pioneered by King Crimson's Discipline album. The compositions are tightly wrought and executed with technically demanding parts that interlock Sticks, basses, guitars and drums. The Stick players on the album include Malone himself (the mastermind of the Gordian Knot project), John Myung, and Trey Gunn (who does not technically play a Stick but a Warr touch guitar). Gunn also shares the producer's credit with Malone.
The music itself really shows off the diversity of the Stick. There is no end to complex rhythms being tapped out over alternately fluid and savage bass lines, which in turn support simply searing guitar leads. Besides the quality of the playing, which is virtuosic, the composition of the songs is excellent. The range of emotion expressed is quite diverse and subtle. Gordian Knot blends aspects of speed metal, classical, South Asia, and for lack of a better word "Discipline", into a thoroughly listenable and enjoyable musical tapestry.
The concept behind the CD is that of numbers expressing themselves as music, so while the groove of things is often understated for the sake of technical complexity, one comes away thinking that Sean Malone can take the rhythm from an algorithm and lay it on tape. Also there are no vocals to be found anywhere on the disc. I've come to believe that part of the project was an attempt to move beyond language to something more purely notional and less ambiguous (but I tend to read into things).
Highlights include "Reflections" that features a sublime balance of heavy bass and acoustic guitar, "Redemption's Way" which has a great South Asian groove, "Rivers Dancing" which careens between hard driving metal and delicate dark melodies, and a surprisingly gentle and lovely "hidden" track called "Grace".
All in all, I give Gordian Knot a A-/A. While a thoroughly excellent album in composition and execution, it has the slight edge of being produced as a project, and subtly lacks the élan of a band jamming for the sheer joy of music that marks out a true masterpiece recording. Still, this is one small thing made clear to a guy who has listened to it time and time again on headphones. The sheer quality of the recording brings it under such a close scrutiny. I definitely recommend it, especially to those who enjoy the music of Belew Era King Crimson.