Guitar World (USA) Oct 98
BRIAN MAY CONTINUES TO ROCK IN THE ROYAL TRADITION
WITH A NEW SOLO ALBUM
BY ALAN DE PERNA
"I go through major crises every few months," sighs Brian May. "But
then I have great peaks of belief and
creativity. I'm a weird kind of animal."
The guitarist is talking about the six-year process that went into the
making of his new album, Another World (Hollywood). The disc takes May's
trademark guitar harmonies to some exotic new places and contains some
of his most aggressive, impressive fretwork to date.
May's vocal skills, a keystone of the Queen sound, are in ample evidence on the new disc, tackling a broader stylistic range than ever before. Although May slows the pace for a ballad or two. Another World is generally more of a heavy rock album than his first solo effort, Back to the Light [1992 UK, '93 US], and more of a departure from Queen than his previous solo work.
"Yeah, I feel like I'm getting somewhere new," he modestly declares. "In my heart I do. There are a number of strides I've taken. Although it's not always easy."
May originally conceived the album as a collection of cover songs. Seeking
to reinvent himself by going back to his roots, he recorded tunes by such
long-time personal heroes as Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and the late Irish
guitarist Rory Gallagher. But after some rigorous "pruning", as may puts
it, only three covers made it onto the final album. May and his band blast
through a stomping rendition of Larry Williams' Slow Down, a song that
became a garage band standard in the early Sixties after the Beatles recorded
it. There's also a rousing
rendition of Mott the Hoople's All The Way From Memphis - with a theatrical cameo from May's old friend and former Mott leader Ian Hunter - and a reverent reading of Jimi Hendrix's One Rainy Wish.
After much soul searching, May decided that the majority of the new
release should be comprised of his own compositions. A loose overall theme
to the album was provided unexpectedly by a side project: the song 'Another
World', which May wrote for the film Sliding Doors.
The ballad also became the title track for the guitarist's album.
"I realized that this film assignment had wrenched out of me, virtually in one night, the whole theme of what my album should be about," he says. "I looked at all the lyrics to all the songs I'd been doing and it all made sense to me. The whole album is about this other world that I never manage to find. A better kind of truth and a better way of me relating to the world. In writing some of the songs on the album, like 'Wilderness', I felt it was such a long way away. And writing 'On My Way Up' I felt it was almost touchable."
Another song originally written for the screen turned out to be a spot-on
showcase for another of May's old friends, Jeff Beck. The Guv'nor, Brian
explains, was a tune he wrote for "a film about a bare-knuckle boxer. A
true story. An English guy. Rather an unsavoury character, actually. A
very scary kind of guy, who basically rose from the gutter because of his
ability with his fists.
The film didn't get made because they ran out of money. But I had this song. And I started thinking this would apply to Jeff.
Because Jeff, in our world, is the guy on the block who's scary. He's someone you don't mess with. You don't even try to play his stuff. He is the Guv'nor: the standard by which you judge yourself. I think a lot of us view him that way. And there came a moment when I plucked up enough courage to ring him up and say, 'What do you think, Jeff? Do you fancy being the Guv'nor?' I explained the idea to him, played him the track, and he loved it. He thought it would be a good laugh."
"So he came down and played. He did fantastic things right off, and instinctively went for it. And I loved it. But he said, 'Brian, it's okay; but I don't think it's quite right. I don't think I've quite collared it yet. Let me take it away and listened to it for a while and I'll do you some better stuff.' About a year later I phoned him up and said 'Jeff? How you feel about that thing? Did you get round to going it?' He said, 'Ah, no. But it's in my mind. The right moment is gonna come.' And sure enough, about two days before we had to deliver this album to EMI [May's UK label], I got the tapes back, which had all kinds of brilliant stuff on them."
The song is meant to be a bit tongue-in-cheek, explains Brian, who can
be heard singing lyric lines like "If licks could kill we'd all be dead",
as Beck tears the roof off. Says May, "I actually have a rough mix of the song with Jeff's first stuff on it, which is quite interesting. At that point, it was more sort of a duel between he and him. But he just came up with so much brilliant stuff, I wanted too put it all on there. So it's mainly Jeff on guitar, except for rhythm parts."
May gets his own licks in elsewhere, notably on Cyborg, a tour de force of two-handed tapping that also features Foo Fighter Taylor Hawkins on drums. May's blinding arpeggio work takes on the dangerous robotic perfection of the title character. It's hard to distinguish his guitar from a synth at points.
"Actually, that part started life as a synth", he says. "It's a song I wrote on a computer, using a sort of synth guitar. It was a quick job I did for a computer game. And it obviously cried out to be a proper guitar thing, so I went for it. These days I'm using my fingers to pick more. Because there are a lot of things you can do by plucking the strings in different directions. And it also links into tapping, because your right hand isn't holding a pick, so its free to go up on the fret board. I'm not heavily into tapping, but there are certain things you can do where the [right hand] finger can also hit a fret and get little transition notes, which can be really nice."
As always, May played his venerable Red Special - the guitar that he built as a teenager with his dad and which has been with him ever since. "But actually, for the very first time, I didn't use it for all of the album", says May. "Because, toward the end of the project, I took it to bits, working with this guy Greg Fryer, who is a master craftsman. It's the first time I've taken any steps to do any restoration on my guitar in 30 years. We ceremoniously undid the single screw that is the only thing that holds the neck onto the body. And that was the first time in 30 years that I saw the inside of this thing that my dad and I had worked away at all those years ago. It was quite an emotional moment. It's always a great link with my dad, who I lost about 10 years ago. I always feel this guitar has a lot of him in it."
"The binding was starting to fall off the guitar and was stuck on with sticky tape. And of course sweat starts to get in when that happens. It was very pitted. Lots of stuff had happened to the front and back. The neck had a few bangs. There were things that were still working, but I feel that in another month it would have been irreparable. So Greg restored everything with great care, millimeter by millimeter. And my guitar's back together now, I think better than ever."
"What persuaded me to do the restoration was that Greg made me a copy - in fact three copies - of my guitar. He used the same wood, glue and paint. We went through my dad's workshop, which is still there, and found a lot of things we needed. So I used the new guitars for some things on my album and after a while I'd forgotten I wasn't using my own guitar. It's amazing."
Sessions for 'Another World' took place in the studio on the second
floor of May's home, Allerton Hill. He played most of the instruments himself,
although his long-time touring bassist, Neil Murray, crops up on several
tracks, along with a handful of other seasoned players.
Drumming on most tracks was handled by Cozy Powell, who died in an automobile accident shortly after the album was completed. He had been a member of May's touring band the last five years of his life. 'Another World' was Powell's final project.
"It was a horrible shock", says May of the drummer's death. "Cozy would come around very often when I was making this record, and just give me a spark and take things to a higher level. It's unbelievable that he's not around anymore. I'm thankful that we finished the album, and that he heard it and loved it. He left me a message saying he thought it was even more brilliant than he'd imagined, and that he couldn't wait to take it out on the road."