Atavachron (album)

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“Atavachron” introduces the SynthAxe in Allan’s music. Most of the tracks, such as “Non-brewed Condiment” mix SynthAxe and guitar, but “All Our Yesterdays” shows Allan from another side: Orchestral synths and Rowanne Mark’s pristine vocals are juxtaposed with a reedy SynthAxe duet with Chad Wackerman. Jimmy Johnson, Gary Husband, Chad Wackerman, Billy Childs, Alan Pasqua all contribute, with a special appearance by Tony Williams.

Allan Holdsworth’s New Horizons (Downbeat 1985)

On his latest Enigma album, Atavachron, the revolutionary guitarist takes one step further toward Mars with a new and revolutionary piece of hardware, the SynthAxe. The product of several years of painstaking research, the SynthAxe is England’s answer to the guitar synthesizer. But unlike that popular Roland product, the SynthAxe makes no sound of its own. What it is, basically, is a controller for synthesizers, capable of interfacing with Fairlights, Synclaviers, or any MIDI-equipped synths. This thing is strictly high-tech to the max, and Holdsworth feels it positively renders all other guitar synthesizers obsolete.

"...Where No Guitarist Has Gone Before..." (Cymbiosis 1986)

His new album, Atavachron, admirably adds to his achievements, and reveals Holdsworth’s continuing quest for his own unique sound. Like any true pioneer, Holdsworth is never content with the typical tools of his trade. Indeed, synthesizers and more recently, the MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), have opened up new avenues of musical exploration for him. You’d think with the myriad possibilities available through these technological little wonders, there’d be enough to keep anyone busy. This Englishman, as you already know (or will understand after reading the following interview), is not just anyone. Nor is his new instrument, the SynthAxe, just any musical instrument: there is the familiar fretboard that can be played by a guitarist, but it is a synthesizer controller, not a guitar.

Cymbiosis: Well, your new album, Atavachron, because of the SynthAxe, has a distinctly different sound from Metal Fatigue, the one prior.

Holdsworth: Yeah, I think there’s two reasons for that. One is because I’ve been thinking over the last couple of years that when I reviewed all the albums, I’d never feel quite so happy with the vocal tracks. Not because of the vocals, because Paul [Williams] sings great. It wasn’t that. It’s just because, musically, they seem to be more watered down or more fickle. They just didn’t seem to be what I wanted. And I wanted to do an instrumental thing, so when I got the SynthAxe, I was thinking in those terms. So when I started to write the music, it just came out more instrumental. And, second, because I was playing some of the synth parts and playing guitar, I realized we should definitely get a keyboard player in the band.

Cymbiosis: You’ve gone away from keyboards in the past, especially after your U.K. and Bruford days.

Holdsworth: They were basically keyboard dominated situations, and I wanted to reverse the roles and use the guitar. For example, with Bill [Bruford], he’d always use the synthesizer above the guitar for a chordal section, just because he thought the synthesizer sounded better than the guitar. I needed to get that out of my system and escape from all the synth things. So we did the I.O.U., Road Games, and Metal Fatigue—three trio albums. So I’ve had four or five years of trio and I really felt that I wanted to do something else.

Cymbiosis: And so you recruited Billy Childs.

Holdsworth: Yeah. Originally, Alan Pasqua was the guy I first thought of in the band, because I just love the guy. I can’t say enough good things about him. He’s an incredible musician.

Cymbiosis: You’ve worked with him quite a bit in the past?

Holdsworth: No, I worked with him with Tony Williams, which is the only time. (I was definitely suffering from novice behavior in those days). And it was nice to get back together to play with him again. So I asked him to play on Metal Fatigue. He played a solo on " The Un-Merry- Go-Round". On "Atavachron", because I’d written and recorded most of the music on synthesizer, I wanted to get somebody else to come and play solos. So Gary Willis, the bass player on "The Un-Merry-Go- Round”, introduced me to the piano player, Billy Childs, and he sounded great. And through working Bunny Brunei, I met Kei Akagi, who’s fantastic. He’s the guy who’s in the band now.

Cymbiosis: He’s the one we saw you with at the Roxy [L.A., 14 March 1986].

Holdsworth: That’s right, and Kei was actually going to play on some of the album, but he wasn’t available at the time. We couldn’t coordinate it, and so I asked Alan and he played on two tracks, "Atavachron" and "Mr. Berwell". Billy Childs played on "Funnels."

Castles Made Of Sand (Guitarist 1987)

One of the most revered musicians of our time and probably most talked about guitarist in these pages, Allan Holdsworth, has recorded a new album ‘Sand’ Because he refuses to either compromise his music or bow to commercial pressures Allan is again facing the prospect of ‘no deal’ Neville Marten asked about ‘Sand’…

Basically it’s a big leap forward for me with the SynthAxe. For the previous album ‘Atavachron’ I’d only had the SynthAxe a short time before we started recording. In fact, we actually came back off the road and I was waiting at home for it to arrive so that I could start working on the album and I didn’t write anything until I got it. So I was thrown in at the deep end in a lot of ways, because I was dealing with the Axe, dealing with the synthesisers and trying to write at the same time. I’m not saying it turned out to be a bad album because there are things about it that I like, but generally speaking I made a lot more progress on the new album, because I’ve had the Axe for so much longer.

Guitar Synths in Jazz (Music Technology 1987)

His last solo album, Atavachron, marked a turning point in Allan’s career, featuring much more synthesizer than is generally expected on a ‘guitarist’ album. His involvement with the SynthAxe is largely responsible for this development, since it has allowed him to step into a role generally reserved for keyboard players. But the changes in his music are not merely in the tonalities of the lead and backing instruments; the character of his compositions has definitely evolved in new directions since his plunge into synthesizers without forsaking the nuances of his playing style altogether.

I want to reach people with my music – common people. (Sym Info 1987)

For those who are still unfamiliar with this instrument: the SynthAxe is a just a couple of years old string-instrument, which looks somehow like a guitar with a neck in a somewhat strange hook on the body, and which is being used to control a synthesizer. The last time the SynthAxe was for Holdsworth clearly an instrument for some variation of his guitar-play, now the proportions were almost even.

Holdsworth: “I think that at this moment I’m capable to play the SynthAxe a whole lot better. On the last LP, “Atavachron”, I just got it before we started recording and I had to play and try to fathom the instrument at the same moment, which didn’t make things easier. On my new LP, “Sand”, I almost play just SynthAxe.”

Lets talk about something more pleasant and go back to your last LP but one, “Atavachron”. Recently I saw a replay of one of the episodes of Star Trek in which on a certain moment some kind of alien says to Spock, pointing to a machine: ‘This, mr. Spock, is the Atavachron

"I love that episode, the idea of a machine with which the population of that planet goes back to its own history to escape the destruction of that planet. In any case I’m a Star Trek-fan. I also love that word: ‘Atava’ from "Atavistic’ and ‘Chron’ form ‘Chronological’. ‘All Our Yesterdays’ was the title of that episode, and I’ve used it for one of the tracks, a reflective piece of music. I try to visualize music; mostly it’s a word or a happening and that gives me inspiration for a piece of music. On my new LP there’s a song ‘4:15 Bradford Exect’. I was born in Bradford an often took the train from London to visit my family. In this song I’ve tried to play a guitarsolo from seven minutes without one repetition, just like the constant changing landscape out of a driving train. With "Atavachron" it was something familiar. In the late evening I often sit in the studio. And than, with all the lights out, the only thing that gives some light are the little lamps of the mixing consule. Than it’s not hard at all to imagine you’re in a spaceship."


For his three Town Pump dates, Holdsworth will be focusing on material from his new album Atavachron. Named after a word he heard in a Star Trek episode, the new LP features a newly developed instrument called the Synth Axe. “It’s like the next generation of machines that guitarists can play to control synthesizers,” says Holdsworth. As well as his trusty Synth Axe, Holdsworth will be joined on stage by drummer Chad Wackerman, bassist Jimmy Johnson, and keyboardist Billy Childs (formerly with saxman Freddie Hubbard).

Although the Atavachron album is distributed on Enigma/Capitol Records in the U.S., a Canadian release has not yet been made of the new LP, so even the most devoted Holdsworth fans will be hearing his new tunes fro the first time. Lack of record company support and poor distribution has not helped promote Holdsworth’s name in the least. In fact, the first album he made with his own band, I.O.U., was mainly a mail-order item when it first came out in ’82. His previous albums Road Games (’84) and Metal Fatigue (’85) are also hard–or impossible–to find in some countries.

Allan Holdsworth’s Untold Secrets + Worthy Quotes (Guitar Player 1990)


Like a lot of kids, when I was growing up I was kind of stubborn, and although I obviously loved my parents, I didn’t always show it - kids can be like that. I think they knew I loved them and cared about them, but I was just not very good at telling them. After my dad passed away, I started feeling unusually sad, particularly so because I was always left wondering if he ever did know how much I loved him.

I tried writing some lyrics for this piece, but I couldn’t express them. I called Rowanne, played it for her and explained the feeling, and that I wanted the title to be "Endomorph," something that’s trapped inside something else, just the way I felt. She wrote it, and like she usually does, she just put a big frog in my throat. She did the same thing with "All Our Yesterdays," from Atavachron: I was just in tears, man. It was incredible. She’d written words that said more than I would have imagined I ever could have. The problem was that I’d written it for me, and it was just outside her range. She could sing it up an octave, but I wanted the melody to be inside the register of the chords. We tried transposing it, and it started not sounding dark or somber enough. I remember my dad used to say, "This tune sounds great in this key." Then he’d play it in a lot of different keys and say, "But listen - it doesn’t sound right in this one." Sometimes you can get away with a half-step in either direction, but even then it often doesn’t work. I tried it again myself, and I couldn’t do it, man. I might have been able to 10, 15 years ago, but I was just croaking and sounding terrible. A few people tried, and then Craig Copeland, whom I met through Chad - who introduced me to Rowanne, as well - came in, and he really sang it great.

Under the second verse there’s a weird, ominous undercurrent.

It was actually a resampled voice. It was taken way out of key, completely off, then we took other samples at different notes, mixed them together, and made another sample as the combination of all of them in that one note. Sonically, it wasn’t as nice as I would have liked, but it did the job inasmuch as it had the spooky vibe about it - there’s a lot of air in the sound. I’d also been working with the Steinberg Tx7 programmer, to get something to simulate the unique sound of a PPG synthesizer. I did two PPGish sounds and blended those with the voice sound That was the bulk of the piece.

Did the piece come off with the kind of emotional breadth you’d intended?

I don’t know. By the time I finish an album, I’m numb. I don’t even know whether any of it’s good. You think, "Oh, Jesus, what did I just play? Was that the biggest load or what?" There’s no way to know. You just say, "I think it was alright," and try again the next day. But sometimes you just have to get away from it. You have to remember what it was feeling like to you when you first did it. I usually come up with the idea really quick, so if the feeling is strong enough in the beginning, when I strike on something I think is okay, it will usually return later. Quite often I work to a point where I just can’t tell. I won’t listen to it for a while, and then I’ll hear it later and go, "Yeah. It was alright."

Legato Land (Guitar Techniques 1996)

Although Allan has been associated with a number of different guitars and amps over the years, his passion for The Synthaxe guitar synthesiser remains undiminished.

"I had a guitar that had a Roland pickup on it for a while, years before I played the Synthaxe, but I didn’t like the ‘pitch to glitch’ I was getting. You know, the spurious blurting and stuff, especially if you played a percussive patch like a piano or a xylophone. So I spoke to Tom Mulhearn [sic], who was writing for Guitar Player magazine over in America at the time, and asked if he knew of any synthesiser controller that didn’t use pitch. He called me back a few months later and told me there’s this company called Synthaxe and they’re in England. So when I was over in England again I went over to see them and check it out and I just fell in love with it. The key pad part of it was, in my opinion, a stroke of genius. In fact, for me they could have almost got rid of the trigger strings and had a new instrument that had a neck like a guitar, but all of the strings would be triggered from the keys. I used to like it because I didn’t think about the guitar when I was playing it.

"It amazed me how many guitar players would pick up the Synthaxe and say, Can you make it sound like a guitar? I’d just stand there, tearing my hair out going, Yeah, yeah, spend $10,000 on something and make it sound like a $500 Strat! [laughs] With the Synthaxe, I just wanted an instrument that I could really control. I didn’t really have it down in the beginning. I’d first used it on ‘Atavachron’ and I’d waited until I got the Synthaxe before I started writing the music. I now realise that I shouldn’t really have done that. On ‘Sand’ I started using the breath controller and found a way to make it sound like me. I had always wanted to play the saxophone and so the breath controller brought me closer to what I want to do than the guitar can. In many ways the Synthaxe liberated me from that sound, you know, having to use distortion to get sustain. I absolutely hate distortion, but I have to use it to get sustain. It’s like a necessary evil. I hate all of the spurious sounds that are in betwee n the notes when you’ve got your amplifier cranked up. With the Synthaxe there was none of that. It was totally clean and I could take a note out from nothing and blow it out to maximum velocity and bring it all the way down to nothing again. I just wish I could do that on a guitar."

Untitled (Guitar Magazine? 2001)

Q: What is your favorite album on your own, as a member and solo project?

A: First of all, the newest one. And others are solo albums; ìWardenclyffe towerîîI.O.U.îîAtavacronîîSandî and ìSecretsî.