To say that German guitar virtuoso Uli Jon Roth is merely a talented musician would be an understatement. His latest release, Transcendental Sky Guitar, is a monumental rock-meets-classical album and thus solidifies his place as one of the instrument’s finest practitioners. But while Roth’s influence has been cited by guitar-gods like Eddie Van Halen, Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai, his fame is largely a European one.
Uli Jon Roth made a name for himself as a member of the Scorpions from 1973-78. Upon leaving the band on amicable terms, he started his own band Electric Sun, releasing three albums including the brilliant Beyond the Astral Skies. Throughout the ‘80s, Roth turned his attention towards the classical side of music, writing four complete symphonies, and a concerto for guitar and orchestra. During this period, he also developed the Sky Guitar which he uses exclusively. A teardrop-shaped, seven-string instrument, the Sky Guitar has a six-octave range that enables Roth to achieve even the highest violin registers.
The decade of the ‘90s was an equally prolific period for Roth. He served as musical director for the German television production of A Different Side of Jimi Hendrix, directed a television performance of his first symphony with the Brussels Symphony Orchestra entitled, Symphonic Rock for Europe and in 1996 released his critically acclaimed Prologue to the Symphonic Legends under the project name Sky of Avalon, to name a few of his accomplishments. But it will be the predominately instrumental, Transcendental Sky Guitar that will easily be touted as Roth’s finest hour.
Roth, along with Don Airey (keyboards), Steven Bentley-Klein (violin, trumpet), Liz Vandall (vocals), Shane Gaalaas (drums) and Barry Sparks (bass) recorded this guitar-driven masterpiece at Roth’s country castle on Britain’s West coast in front of a selected audience, as well as at concerts in Vienna and Paris. A two-CD set, Transcendental Sky Guitar combines five centuries of music and features Roth’s virtuosic interpretation of compositions from such classical masters as Mozart, Bach, Paganini, Vivaldi and Beethoven, as well as the music of his mentor Jimi Hendrix and his own original numbers. The theme of the album, as Roth explains, “is the attempt to experience and to see the world through the eyes of the Sky Guitar.”
Disc one, entitled, The Phoenix takes on a European flavor with 10 of its 12 tracks taken from the works of the aforementioned classical masters. The opener, a Roth original, is the eight minute opus, “Sky Overture” which serves to give the listener an overview of what’s in store—brilliantly impassioned solos and tasteful, yet frightening technical ability. Right off the bat, the listener will be completely blown away by Roth’s command of the instrument, not to mention the warmth and range of the Sky Guitar that seemingly explores every color and texture that can be conjured out of an electric instrument. Then there are effortlessly executed treatments of Mozart’s “Rondo Alla Turka”, Paganini’s “Caprice #24”, which is titled here as “Paganini Paraphrase”, and Mendelssohn’s “Fairy Dance” where Roth’s fast and furious lead passages are surpassed only by his flawlessly, tasteful phrasing and total lack of self-indulgence. The disc is also graced by moments of eloquence. Chopin’s “Sehnsucht” and Massenet’s “Meditation” are gut-wrenching compositions, and Roth’s deep sense of emotion flows from his heart to his fingers giving passionate life to these numbers with his melodic and fluid playing.
Disc two, entitled, The Dragon takes the opposite approach where “American, extremely bluesy and more freely structured music is moved closer to the classical school of thinking.” The intro of the majestic opening track, “Hiroshima” is highlighted by Airey’s beautiful piano lines, lush orchestration and Liz Vandell’s haunting vocal, while the tracks that follow, “Villanova Gem” and “Voodoo Chile” are an excellent tribute to the legendary Jimi Hendrix. “Scherzo Alla Paganini” and “Mighty Wing Cadenza” are solo Uli. Rivaling such riveting guitar masterpieces as Eddie Van Halen’s “Eruption” or Yngwie Malmsteen’s “Evil Eye”, both pieces showcase Roth’s dynamic technical range from lightning quick scalular/modal flourishes to dexterous staccato lines and amazing sweep-picking gymnastics.
Without a doubt, Uli Jon Roth raises the bar in the rock-meets-classical genre. Transcendental Sky Guitar is a truly unique listening experience—a treasure not only for guitar players, but for anyone open to a world of endless, boundless musical possibilities. Make no mistake about it, Roth is the explorer of such possibilities—an artist whose heart and passion is his music.
// Notes from the Road
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