Marc van Vugt - The Curious Badger
This is the second album of acoustic guitar music from Marc van Vugt after the critically acclaimed 2023 album "The Lonely Coyote".
As well as a guitarist, Marc is a composer who has worked with the Netherlands Chamber Choir and the Metropole Orchestra. He performs internationally with his own groups and his compositions reflect experience in jazz and contemporary composed music. Marc clearly loves guitars and knows how to make them sing, each with a distinctive voice, and this new release sounds to me even better than the first one. Nine guitars are used in total; nine tracks are solos and the other three are ensembles.
The album begins with the title track, a strummed fanfare using a 1978 Guild F512 12 string but most of the album focuses on finger-style playing. "Back to the Market Square" has sparkling harmonics and mysterious harmonies from a Lowden 2008 baritone guitar. "Black belt" introduces a Mariano Conde nylon strung in duet with Levin 325 archtop, a Latin flavoured tune which reminded me of Charlie Byrd.
"And the water flows" uses a 1946 Martin 000-21 which sounds just gorgeous. I had slight doubts about the sound on "The Lonely Coyote" but it turns out I was listening to mp3 files which do no favours to acoustic guitar, particularly the reverb tails. This time I had the CD to hand and asked Marc how he records. He explained "I just used two large membrane mic’s (Røde NT1) in an A-B setting. One mic pointed at the 12th fret and one at the bridge but ever so slightly coming from above (to avoid boominess). About 60 cm away from the guitar. There is no overdubbing unless you are really hearing a different part being played. The rest is all due to the mixing by Sander van Herk, guitarist and one of the best mixing engineers we have in the Netherlands." The result is a vivid sound with lots of stereo width which opens up the harmonies perfectly.
"Are we lost" uses the 12 string again and creates a huge sound with thick chords. "On the mountain" is even better, featuring contrapuntal lines with evocative phrasing by exploiting changes in tone colour between the different strings; it reminded me of Martin Taylor at his best. Of the ensemble tracks, "Dancing in the wind" combines six guitars orchestrally, including a resonator slide guitar - it really does dance around a selection of riffs. "The Coyote and the Badger" features five guitars plus prepared harp zither and percussion - very atmospheric music with a Spaghetti Western feel.
The playing is beautifully poised throughout, rhythmically incisive and technically secure. Marc van Vugt's compositions are always imaginative with unusual harmonies and unexpected turns. Like Ralph Towner, he has found a fine balance between improvised and composed forms. Excellent all round.
The album is available on Bandcamp and all download and streaming services with a release date of 15th February 2024.
© Stephen Godsall