Riddle me this: what do Queens of the Stone Age, Brody Dalle, John Paul Jones, Chris Cornell, Mark Lanegan and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have in common? Starving for answers? The solution to this particular puzzle goes by the name of Alain Johannes. From his days in Anthym, which saw him bumping shoulders with Jack Irons and Hillel Slovak, to a lengthy musical relationship with Josh Homme that most recently involved work with Them Crooked Vultures, the Chilean-born Johannes has showcased his distinctive style on a long list of influential rock recordings.
After years of such discographic gymnastics, Johannes has graced us with a solo effort called Spark that goes against he grain of his alt-rock pedigree, instead plumbing the depths of acoustic creativity and personal catharsis. The seeds for Spark were planted not long after the unfortunate passing of Johannes’ longtime partner and Eleven bandmate Natasha Shneider, for whom he would compose “Endless Eyes”. This song, rattling and shaking like a folk ritual with beautiful layers of cigar-box guitar and pained vocals cutting through the mix, opens Spark, largely defining its elegiac sonic concept. The album feels, for lack of a better analogy, like the Marrakech desert sessions: technical and exotic, boasting a cupboard full of esoteric string techniques culled from the musty corners of old luthiers’ shops the world over.
It has been said that the candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long, and that adage holds true for Spark, which lives up to its name at only eight tracks and roughly half an hour of listening time. Despite its brevity, each of the record’s fragments displays remarkable creativity and diverse character. The songs never lack emotional or musical poignancy, whether presented in the poppier style of “Return to You”, with the shapeshifting twists of Indian and Middle Eastern detail on “Make God Jealous,” or with the warped lullaby quality of songs like “Spider” and “Unfinished Plan.” The album slow-burns and spirals in incense-smoky whorls, sometimes eerie and delicately emotional, sometimes bright and frenetic, densely imbued with a variety of guitar techniques that suggest everything from mysticism to flamenco to stoner rock.
A particular lyric from “Speechless” contains an eloquent summation of this record’s mood. With the line “carried by the tone, the resonating drone,” Johannes establishes a unified emotional narrative about grief and recovery that lasts throughout Spark. The ideas never feel canned or forced, working with the shifting tempos, styles and song structures to express pain, reverence, acceptance and the occasional glint of hope. It’s an album that will catch you with its technical prowess only to lead you past the skilled hands and into the mind of the man behind the guitar.