Part Punk, Part Hippie, All Nish
By Sean Lee
With the dominance of hip-hop and R&B in the billboard charts, as well as rock’s own betrayal of its guitar playing roots through post punk’s disdain for the technical aspects of the instrument, the guitar is seldom seen in the hands of the younger generation of music makers. And while one may have seen the occasional Jimi Hendrix torchbearer donning the stratocaster in hippie garb, their attempts seem outdated at its best and outright blasphemous at its worst.
At face value, Malaysian guitar player Nishanth Selvalingam (stage name Nish the Fish) could be categorized as one of these Hendrix copycats with his long hair and penchant for the occasional silk shirt and pentatonic scales. his comparison would be superficial, however, because with the release of his first studio album Devotion, Nish has proven his musicality to be genuine rather than atavistic. He chooses to embrace his modern influences rather than sticking to the musical regression of other guitarists.
Opening track “St John of the Cross” begins with a somewhat cliche invocation of an upcoming revelation as Nish mutters, “The darkness is the preparation for a great light.” The great light in this case isn’t necessarily the guitar solo that follows, but his choice of backing which is more evocative of the Smashing Pumpkins than the rhythm section of Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding. Self indulgence is the essence of all guitar instrumental albums, but Nish chooses restraint playing to the song’s strengths instead of the wankery of one’s own playing. At the end of this track there is a percussion free interplay between two overdubbed guitars that reveals a more creative aspect of arrangement to the album that is otherwise largely guitar solos.
Arrangement arguably is the strong suit of Devotion. Songs like the delightfully held back “Anam Cara” and the Ravi Shankar esque “The Ascended Masters,” shine outside of the guitar solo. There is a surprising amount of vision given to the progress of these songs, and Nish seems to shine in moments that are invocations of his inner ear rather than a display of flashy guitar playing.
Displays of guitar technicality are undeniably at the core of Devotion with every song at some point breaking into a moment for heady improvisation. And one of the albums downside is the fact that every song seems to use the guitar solo as an easy way out of more intense arrangements which really seem to be Nish’s strong suit.
Even in moments of more songwriting revelations, particularly with the last song “Heat and Light etc,” which serves as an extended spoken word more than an instrumental, the constant phased guitar licks detracts from a song that should emphasize what is being said rather than creating a psychedelic slurry that has no revelation. In fact, the highlight of this song is at the end when the guitar stops and finally the listener can hear what Nish is actually saying, a twist on the new-age notion that all art comes from the invisible shared relationship between the individual and nature.
While marketed as a guitar album, Devotion lacks the overt technicality seen in the genre with albums like Joe Satriani’s Surfing with the Alien or Steve Vai’s For the Love of God. Nor does the album seem to lie in Hendrix’ universe of psychedlia a la Axis: Bold As Love. Instead, what Nish the Fish has created a singularity: a musical glimpse into what makes up his own artistry that is part punk, part hippie, but wholly himself.
Listen to Devotion here:
This piece is by Sean Lee. Follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leee.