Robin Guthrie and Mark Gardener, Two storied musicians from the seminal bands UK bands Cocteau Twins and Ride, have collaborated on the release of Universal Road. Each artist brings a life time of musical experience to the album. Universal Road has both the beauty of the Cocteau Twins and the trailblazing musicianship of Ride but is not just a rehash of the past; instead it is a journey into what comes after their prior musical incarnations.
The anticipation for this collaboration has been generated by the idea of the two titans of Dream Pop and Shoegaze joining forces to create something spectacular. Gardener and Guthrie’s later efforts have at times been overshadowed by their earlier bands. Both in some ways forever stuck with the “former” moniker attached to their names. For those not in the know, Guthrie is renowned for his co founding of the legendary Cocteau Twins. In the twenty years since the band’s demise, he has done just about everything you can do in the music profession. He has five solo albums to his credit, numerous collaborations, is a songwriter, composer, record producer, audio engineer, programmer and sound processor. He plays guitar, bass, keyboards, drums, etc.
Mark Gardener was the shoegaze pioneer and singer/guitarist of the band Ride. After Ride called it a day in 1995 he moved on to the band The Animal House, and during and after their existence was involved with various bands, Brian Jonestown Massacre, The Morning After Girls, and Molly’s just to name a few. He has put out two solo albums, three EPs, and had numerous guest cameos. With all that experience on deck it is no wonder many of the aficionados of their prior bands are curious about the end result of this current collaboration.
Both musicians have worked together before on the 2012 release The Places We Go which presented an opulent chemistry and ethereal gut check. As before Universal Road was produced, written and performed by both men. Gardener provides the vocals as the pair share instrumental duties. What is delivered on Universal Road is a solid slab of astutely constructed music. The album begins with the title track, the name symbolizing the road of life, “…I carry you wherever I go… we live in the space between these notes.” The song is everything you would expect from the collaboration of these two gifted individuals. It is lush, fluid and mesmerizing a pure delight. Very quickly you realize you are in safe hands with these two masters of sonic panoramas in charge of the musical journey. The second track Dice is a swirling lullaby with a slightly more digital feel in the underpinnings of the song. It delivers a large aural feel with a reverb guitar and lovely vocal, and if possible really expands in the second third of the song. All the while the song extols the idea that we make the choices and take the risks of those choices, “…your dice to throw.”
Amnesia is a richly textured and substantial offering. The acoustic guitar treatment is divine as Gardener’s warm vocals make for a beautifully sparkling song. Old Friend showcases Gardener’s lyrical prowess. Musically it is a departure from the first few songs, as it has a much more R&B/Soul feel lurking in the background. The song takes up the topic of regret and reevaluating life while recognizing where exactly he is finding himself on the pathway of life. It is bittersweet but also filled with resolve. Again and again throughout the album the listener is struck by the diversity and lush alluring beauty of the guitars. Yesterday’s News takes on the topic of each of the duo’s band history. It is cathartic and at some points confrontational as it deals with the idea that their ex bands are always going to be used to reference their current work. In the end the conclusion is”I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
On Cry for Survival the lush production here provides a wondrous song that encourages hope in the face of the world spinning out of control. Take note of the apt use of steel guitar. The song Sometime has a definitive grandiose feeling and the duo has the gravitas to pull it off. The song layers acoustic and electric guitars with a great chorus,” no getting old before our time.” The lyrics lament the problem of never having the time to do the things we want to do. They go on to further instruct the listener to stop rationalizing reasons and grasp the gold ring and do the things you want before it is too late.
Triumphant lives up to its ebullient title. Its shimmering guitar is more upbeat as it states life is far from over. As the record winds down some of the strongest songs in the release remain. Reason reveals even more breathtaking guitar work; here a shoegazer vibe reveals itself. Experience and maturity are evident as each performer is on the top of their game. The albums ends with the scintillating Blind that is evocative and glorious. It questions all the things we will never understand and the time we waste blinded to life, “always getting ready to live…but we are never living…but there are thing we never see.” There is an aching melancholy beauty to this track that makes it hard to forget.
Universal Road does not leap out at the listener demanding attention, instead it soaks in and sticks make it very hard to shake off. These elder statesmen of “thinking person” rock have produced a luminous creation using all their storied skills. As the shoegazer revival arrives in full swing this album indicates that two of its main protagonists have matured and moved on to something larger. Rather than offer up a rehash of the past the listener gets pleasantly defined melodies and song structures. Universal Road displays two artists far from the end of their musical journey.