Crown by Eric Gales: Blues but for the grace of Bach

‘Is this the beginning or the end of time?’

— Jimi Hendrix.

Eric Gales is back with a blues record to compete with contentions to foundation of a new genre of music, along the lines of Bach’s foundation of classical music in the baroque period. The opening track of Gales’ record ‘Death of Me’ echoes recent blues-infused musical Hadestown with a lyrically astute and thematically downtrodden message of hope in the darkness. ‘If you don’t learn from your mistakes, you’ll be the death of me.’ It was in the 1940s and 1950s that Miles Davis took blues rhythm and baroque harmony to lay the foundations for modern jazz music, a combination of blues and Bach. Gales is echoing that foundation in a new era, as figures such as Jacob Collier attempt to repopularise jazz by increasing its complexity. Gales prefers going back to the basics of rock ‘n roll. While trumpeter Miles Davis focused on melody and pianist Jacob Collier (following mentor Herbie Hancock, longtime Miles Davis collaborator) focuses on harmony, Gales is attuned to the rhythmical lilting of blues in its classical formulation, with a modern twist. Gales is, to echo pop producer Grey and singer Camila Cabello, ‘running for the crown’. But unlike the pop ‘Crown’ and its successor ‘you should see me in a crown’ by Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell, Gales’ Crown prefers something much more acoustic in sonic landscape, following his viral YouTube covers of Jimi Hendrix and AC/DC in the style of B. B. King, who have also inspired my work as a guitarist on a lower rung of the ladder which Gales has so patiently climbed.

The new Jimi Hendrix? Not so fast.

‘How can you like what I play and not like me?’, Gales asks. ‘How can you do me like that? It puzzles me?’ The second song ‘Storm’ echoes Hendrix’s lyrical skill in combination with his guitar-infused melodies. Gales’ harmonic skill is equally compelling, with the backing band being a matter of taste rather than of necessity. Miles Davis and Jacob Collier-inspired? Or B. B. King and Jimi Hendrix redux? Well, we might have to disentangle this knot a little bit, first.

Harmony may bridge the gap between rhythm and melody, technique and artistry, but alone it is as empty as words are in political debate. The bridge is not the land. The bridge exists to get you from one place to another, and vice versa. Otherwise, it is like having an empty bridge suspended in space, with no beginning and no ending. It is fascinating, intriguing, and perhaps enlightening. But is it artistically illuminating, or technically useful? It is, to put it in a word, musical? No, not really. It is like a whole song with a bridge and no verse, chorus, or hook to keep the audience remembering the song and singing it to generations to come, to cherish and enjoy, rather than just indulge in with intellectual interest. Music requires a full engagement of the personality and the emotions. Music requires depth and calculation, combined.

Blues falls into a slightly different trap than jazz. In Jacob Collier, we see jazz almost become pure technicality, pure calculation, without artistry or depth. In Gales, we find some observations on life that are astute and combined with musical skill. But there are fillers, too. ‘I Want My Crown’ involves a guitar collaboration with Joe Bonamassa, who opened for B. B. King when he was only twelve, that echoes Jacob Collier and Drake’s vocal collaborations with YEBBA. The collaboration reveals an emptiness in the artist where there should be something more full. Compare the collaboration to the work of Kanye West, whose collaborations involve enriching of the sonic genius that is already given by Ye himself. Kanye takes samples and makes something even greater from the art of production, beyond mere technique. ‘I Want My Crown’ is enjoyable, and Jacob Collier’s music is often interesting. But good music is both enjoyable and interesting — at once artistic and technical; or balanced.

For this reason, blues music echoes Beethoven in some ways more than it does Bach. It is artistic and expressive rather than technical and calculating. Jazz music echoes Bach more than it does Beethoven because it focuses on technique. But Bach himself viewed art as central, and Miles Davis’ melodic focus is similarly artistic. Harmony for harmony’s sake is not present in classical music, nor in jazz music. It is roughly the Jacob Collier school of musical scholasticism that emphasises the affinity between harmony and rhythm as the basis of good music. All good so far. But what arises from this base? Something good, melodic, and memorable — presumably. If Jacob Collier is the modern Mozart, as the New York Times claims, then it may be that his artistic maturation comes, like Mozart, a little while after the technical foundations are laid — perhaps more than a little time. Mozart’s Requiem was a late epiphany, and not an entirely welcome one, analogous to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Technique comes before art, but art is the end towards which technique aims. It is hard to strike this balance.

On ‘Survivor’, Gales descends into a somewhat anodyne discussion of speaking out against the system: ‘I believe I can row with those seas that you sow / Deep down I reach up higher’. The harmony is quite nice. But then the key lyric kicks in: ‘I’m still here — I’m a survivor’. OK. I prefer ‘Stronger’ by Kanye. Call me ignorant. To quote Ye, ‘Josh, where the bass?’ Somewhere, I’m sure — just buried in the mix. Oh but the guitar solo on ‘Too Close to the Fire’ is great, though — why can’t the whole album sound this good?

In truth, the back half of the album adds some impressive artistry to the technical foundations of the first half. ‘Let Me Start with This’, ‘I Found Her’, and ‘My Own Best Friend’ stand out especially in this regard. It’s just, for someone this talented, a little … disappointing. Impressive, enjoyable at times, and consistently awe-inspiring technique — for sure. But era-defining? Sadly not this time. But that guitar solo …

Crown is blues, but for the grace of Bach. And Beethoven is almost nowhere to be found. Unfortunately, this take on Jimi Hendrix is a little empty. Perhaps more than a little. It’s sad. Because blues was always anything but banal. Bring back Bach.

‘God’s not finished’

— Ye.

‘I Gotta Go’

— Eric Gales.

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