Acoustic Environment

Are you tired of electric guitars? Fed up with the sound of oscillators, filters and shapers? Do you yearn for the sweeter tones of traditional musical instruments? Then Acoustic Environment by Mark Hillis is the album for you.

Acoustic Environment

Mark is a guitarist and photographer from San Diego, California. During his college years he teamed up with vocalist Jerry Harrison to record a progressive hard rock CD called Harlequin, which was released in 1990 and still seems to be available as a download. Although he makes no apology for that earlier effort, Mark’s later work is very different.

Acoustic Environment is an album of acoustic guitar pieces played by Mark himself with a few guest musicians adding violin, trumpet, Chapman Stick, bass and percussion. If you’re familiar with John Williams, the classical guitarist, and Sky (the classical/rock crossover band of which John was a founder member) you’ll get the idea.

Mark Hillis has composed a set of classically-inspired pieces and had them performed by musicians with a foot in both classical and pop/rock camps. The result is a collection of instrumentals, some reminiscent of Spanish dances, some like jaunty sea shanties, some with a folky feel and all with a satisfyingly full modern production making use of electronic devices only to compliment the conventional instruments.

The album opens with ‘Climbing the Walls’, which features the dulcet tones of Tiffany Modell’s violin floating lightly over guitar chords that ring harmoniously for most of the track but introduce a grating dissonance once in a while. It reminds me of an artist applying the finishing brush strokes to a masterpiece when someone jogs his arm. The painting is eventually completed but the process was unnecessarily difficult and frustrating.

Tiffany’s violin features strongly on ‘Synthesis’, too, but this time everything falls into place beautifully. Tom Griesgraber’s Chapman Stick and Mark’s guitar play together like children in the park, the violin sings as they scamper by and Jeff Hurt’s trumpet murmurs pleasurably as parents look on.

The simplest track on the album is ‘Solitude’ which, as the name suggests, is a contemplative guitar solo. The remaining pieces augment the guitar work with a little bass, percussion and synthesiser sounds, a modern reworking of classical, folk and Spanish themes – not exactly John Williams but very pleasing none the less.

There’s a playful feel to many of the tracks on Acoustic Environment, none more so than the last one, which is called ‘Squirrely’. Mark mentions it specifically in the sleeve notes where he has a note to his parents: “I know you wanted to hear some vocals from me, so ‘Squirrely’ is for you”. He is referring to his brief giggle that ends the album.

Like Sky’s recordings Acoustic Environment should appeal to a very broad range of tastes; unlike Sky, though, Mark Hillis and his collaborators are virtually unknown. Crotchety Man believes the Hillis crowd deserves better recognition and this is reflected in the ‘hidden gems’ tag on this post. Give it a whirl. If you don’t like it perhaps your mother, uncle or cousin will.

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