The rock instrumental is a much derided genre. Maybe it’s the thought of being tagged as ’70s revivalists, or maybe it’s the terror of all your fans being earnest young men wearing berets and nodding their heads in time to your music. Whatever the reason, most bands tend to shy away from the instrumental, leaving it to dance artists instead. Bands like Underworld and The Chemical Brothers are quite safe producing instrumentals, but if you have the traditional set up of a guitar, bass and drums, then you really need a vocalist if you want to get your career on track.
Of course, all this could be do with the fact that the vast majority of rock instrumentals are actually very dull. It almost seems obligatory to embark on endless jazz/funk workouts, all the time making semi-orgasmic faces while playing the guitar. It all brings to mind Derek Small’s “new direction” in the film This Is Spinal Tap. Which is why it comes as a relief to meet Unwed Sailor.
Unwed Sailor are a bunch of Chicago-based instrumentalists, led by bass player Johnathan Ford. Instead of concentrating of trying to break the world record for the longest guitar solo, they produce accessible, melodic and concise instrumentals that, in places, can be hauntingly beautiful. The whole album lasts for just 37 minutes, a startlingly short time in these days of multi-media enhanced special edition CDs.
As Ford is the main player in Unwed Sailor, it comes as no surprise to hear that the bass guitar is very much to the fore. This results in a rather sad air hanging over most of the songs, even the more upbeat ones such as the opener Last Goodbyes. It may seem strange that instrumentals can convey such emotions, but this album does just that. Although the faster songs on this album work just fine, the undoubted highlights occur when the band slow down proceedings and produce a ballad such as the wonderful Riddle Of Stars. In addition, tracks such as In The Presence Of Thorns, with its sustained keyboard chord throughout, conjure up memories of none other than mid-period U2.
If there is a fault with Unwed Sailor, it’s the fact that all the songs on this album do tend to sound somewhat similar. Indeed, if this is on in the background, you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s all one long song with occasional changes of tempo. It’s telling that the most memorable track on this album is the last one, The Quiet Hour. This starts off very similar to the rest of the album, with a long keyboard motif, followed by Ford’s haunting bassline. Then, to completely catch the listener unaware, Ford starts to sing of “Silent rain… I say my goodbyes… take a leap overboard”. Ford has an impressive, if fragile, voice and the end result is quite stunning. It makes you wonder what kind of album this would have been had more vocal tracks been added. But that’s Unwed Sailor, steering their own course and following their own star. Long may they sail.