Joe Hodgson is a guitarist and composer from Northern Ireland. He grew up in County Tyrone at the height of The Troubles and discovered a deep love for the guitar, having been inspired by Irish blues-rock legends like Gary Moore and Rory Gallagher. This started an obsession with the instrument which culminated in moving to London where he spent many years writing, recording, performing and touring with various bands and projects. He then returned to Ireland to work on his solo album.
This album, Apparitions, was preceded by two singles, The One That Got Away and the double A-side Serena Sonata/Bareback Blues and these three songs all appear. The title was inspired by the W.B. Yeats poem Apparitions, which was the favourite poem of his late mother. Her passing is the artistic inspiration behind the album, which consists of sixteen instrumentals. They are all his own compositions with the exception of the opening track, a stunning guitar interpretation of Bach’s Cantata 147.
From the opening bars, it becomes immediately apparent that Joe is an exceptional lead guitarist and this short piece then bursts into the upbeat, funky blues-rock of Fly That Flag, which brought to mind the sound of The Stone Roses second album, Second Coming. It’s a fine showcase for Joe’s mellifluous lead guitar work, though what is striking is how carefully composed and structured everything he plays is.
As he has the virtuosity to become potentially self indulgent with lengthy guitar solos, Joe sidesteps this common weakness with gifted guitarists, more interested in compositional craft, whilst strongly expressing his emotions through his instrument. This track also introduces us to some of the talented musicians he works with including the strident, punchy drumming of Max Saidi (Will Young, Shane Whelan), Vinzenz Benjamin’s superb bass playing and the inventive keyboard work of Nick Gilmore (Odyssey).
Serena Sonata lives up to its title, with a notable classical influence fused with rock and Latin American rhythms. Starting out with a legato, soaring tone it’s when the drums kick in that Joe ratchets up the gears with a virtuoso display of carefully controlled lead guitar, an explosion of exotic scales and runs across the high end of the fretboard. In perfect contrast, the languid blues rock groove of Bareback Blues suits Hodgson’s passionate playing style down to the ground and you can tell this genre is closest to his heart. While the lead guitar playing is Gary Moore-esque, the backing music has a pleasing Beatlesy retro feel, melodically rich and melancholy.
The One That Got Away has an even more accented moody sadness, with a haunting lead guitar melody that Joe extemporizes around beautifully. The way the music builds to a towering emotional climax that tugs hard on the heart strings is testament to his skill as both guitarist and composer. Understandable as a choice for the first single.
The brief but brilliant track The Player contains some of the most incendiary lead guitar playing on the album, with some lightning speed, jaw-dropping runs on the low end of the neck. If flips from this exuberance to the desolation and tragic sadness of Till The Last Breath. Here, Hodgson’s delicate and sensitive slide guitar work shows a different side to his art, one ultimately concerned with deep expression of heartfelt and complex emotion. It feels like the track that has the most personal meaning for him, as every note seems to be exude real feeling.
Long Hard Look is totally different, this time a jazzy upbeat track that shows his musical sophistication and even a quirky side, the angular melodies and unexpected chord changes bringing to mind the wild, eccentric flair of Frank Zappa. Disruptor opens with a brief burst of Beethoven’s Ode To Joy, which feels tongue in cheek as it breaks out into one of the harder rocking numbers here, with some fabulous Eddie Van Halen (R.I.P. Eddie) style playing, Joe whizzing around the guitar with consummate ease. The band behind match his furious and infectious energy whilst remaining absolutely water right throughout. Another excellent track.
This momentum carries on into the remarkable 10 Feet From Chaos, a glorious riot of zig zagging riffage, pounding tom tom rhythms and frenetic percussion. It’s another diverse twist in this rollercoaster ride of an album. Portrait of Portia Jayne takes us back into more exotic realms, a lush and finely crafted track based around modal scales which gives it its Eastern flavour. It goes without saying it features some more first rate fretwork, though perfectly measured to fit with the rest of the music.
Resurrection Dance is a taut and concise funk rock track where every musician excels and the synergy particularly stands out on this one, the precision metronomic whilst still retaining exuberance and expressiveness. Your Fragile Heart is a nice change of pace, a dreamy instrumental that seems the perfect soundtrack to a slow dance, though one with a bittersweet and poignant vibe.
Running Away From Me is a mid tempo track full of musical twists and turns that keep you compelled while Redneck and the Snowflake is more light hearted, a fusion of classic and progressive rock that works well, adding yet another layer of variety to this eclectic album.
It finishes, perhaps suitably, with the late night jazz bar vibes of the gorgeous Losing You Again. It’s another composition where Hodgson’s playing has real feeling and the bluesy runs work perfectly with the classy, jazzy backing. The strings entering turn up the poignancy to eleven, augmenting the beautiful lead guitar melody. A perfect ending, closing out the emotional journey.
Overall, this is a stellar collection of instrumentals from a virtuoso guitarist and composer. Joe Hodgson’s guitar skills alone make it worth a listen, but it’s the sheer musical variety and emotional range that make Apparitions such a strong album. It deserves to be heard and appreciated by many.
VERDICT = 9.2 out of 10
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