Whether it was mourning the loss of George Martin, Prince, and David Bowie, or awaiting new releases from Beyoncé, The Julie Ruin, and Itzhak Perlman, 2016 has been a very noteworthy year for music. On top of everything else –two of the most widely recognized names in the non-classical violin world released new albums within a few weeks of each other. Mark Wood released Turbow, calling it “The Most Dangerous Rock Violin Album Ever,” and Lindsey Stirling released her 3rd album Brave Enough, saying it was about “the next step in the process” of breaking free from her struggles.
Mark Wood is among one of the most innovative luthiers, performers, and educators in the violin world. To make the violin fit into the kind of music he wanted to play, he totally reinvented the instrument, creating “The Viper,” a 6 or 7 string, self-supporting electric violin modeled after Flying-V style guitars. He has dedicated his life to showing how a violin can rock – both in his own performing and his innovative Electrify Your Strings program, where he brings heavy metal to school orchestras, helping the next generation to see just what is possible.
The only potential critique I felt from his previous work (and this is the mildest of critiques that is in no way despairing a brilliant musician) was that perhaps his own music was too derivative of guitar-driven rock music. He almost always played with heavy distortion – in a way that made the violin sound almost identical to a guitar. Although there were subtle ways in which bowing techniques brought something different, the casual listener would have a difficult time distinguishing a Mark Wood song from any impressive heavy metal instrumental guitarist like Stevie Vai or Yngwie Malmsteen.
Lindsey Stirling is a widely acclaimed musician who has enjoyed chart-topping hits and sold-out tours without any label backing. She is known for elaborate dance routines and high electronica energy that go along with her pop-friendly approach to violin playing. Her YouTube channel is one of the most widely viewed and subscribed on earth, and has often served as an important introduction to the revolutionary concept that the violin need not be a classical instrument.
I deeply respect her innovative use of social media to build a fan base and the way she carries herself with a lack of concern for what others think, composing her own music and choreography to become a musical superstar without compromise. However, there has been room for improvement in some of her earlier playing. Underneath the elaborate studio wizardry and electronica beats was a violin tone that was often stilted and indistinct. By her own admission, she has struggled in the past with certain “bad habits” (like flattening the left hand) that increase tension and make it harder to play well.
With these new projects, both artists have grown and evolved – correcting what I felt were previous deficiencies.
Mark Wood has plenty of moments where he allows his Viper to play a clean, unprocessed sound, as well as echo, flange, and other effects that display the versatility of electric violins. One of the strongest tracks, “Turbow,” is a solo violin piece with elaborate string crossing and arpeggios that suggest a Bach partita and show off the Viper’s extended range. This song is a fantastic introduction to the use of effects with electric violins, showing you some of the most exciting possibilities when distortion, echo, and fuzz interact – there are moments in this solo track where I hear Hendrix-like wails and screeches that leave me not totally sure what he’s doing. On this, and many other tracks, he starts out playing with a more “acoustic” sound, moving to distortion and wah-wah and other “heavy metal” effects only later in the piece – in a way that still rocks hard without feeling like overkill.
In an interview with Laurie Niles from Violinist.com, Stirling said that she was taking lessons again, studying at the well-known Colburn School. I can tell. When I first heard “Lost Girls,” the opening song to Brave Enough, I gasped at how much her tone and playing had improved. It was rich, beautiful, and full sound – much smoother and deeper than what I have heard from her before. The evolution of her playing from a very insecure America’s Got Talent performance, to what I hear on this recording, is truly breathtaking, and should inspire us all to keep experimenting and getting better – as she is growing more and more into her own voice.
Mark Wood has created a truly amazing recording, blasting off to the stratosphere about what a violin is capable of doing. “Fire n’ Ice” is a powerful opener, built around an elaborate spicatto technique that would not be out of place in a Paganini caprice – but then slides into some equally highly developed distorted and wah-wah metal soloing, that rocks hard – and goes back and forth between these “two voices” throughout the song. Another personal favorite is “Fan The Flames,” which opens to an overdubbed Viper created “string quartet” playing an awesome Classical meets Bluegrass riff, that captures my attention right away and giving way to an unrelenting drum beat and epic sounding progressive rock soundscape. So Beethoven, Bill Monroe, and Yes are burning it up in a jam session – and Wood continues to place some truly impressive and creative improvisation onto this mix. A favorite moment is when where Mark starts out in a very high position, and uses tremolo bowing as his hand slides down the fingerboard. It’s a wonderful atonal technique that intensifies the song’s sense of drama.
Lindsey’s album is also filled with some moments that, as a violinist, I found very creative and inspiring. Probably the most innovative use of violin technique on this recording is found in “The Arena” with a series of fast notes, then making a glissando to a harmonic. In this song, she has found space to demonstrate skilled command of the violin, while still creating irresistible hooks that make it great pop music. Another track worth checking out is “Mirage,” a collaboration with vocalist Raja Kumari, in her self-proclaimed “BollyHood” style that brings India and L.A. together in thrilling musical fusion. Stirling responds with a slightly-Carnatic-tinged violin lines, that make this a beautiful and exciting piece, and a return to some of her more exciting dance-oriented musical fusion explorations of her earlier projects. There is a nice overdubbed interplay between an elaborate pizzicato riff and interesting moments of sliding playing with enthusiastic abandon.
Compared to her previous albums, Brave Enough seems to be more oriented for a commercial pop audience – with half of the tracks featuring a well-known pop singer performing as a “guest vocalist.” They are often very well-put together pop songs. However, I have to wonder why an album with Stirling’s name and picture on it has so many songs on which she seems to only play a background role.
As demonstrations of Stirling’s playing, some of these work more successfully than others. “Brave Enough,” sung by Christina Perri and “Love’s Just a Feeling” have her consigned to the background, and basically “parroting” the vocal line exactly, when I feel like a harmony or counter-melody would have worked better. To be honest, in these songs, the violin almost seems like an afterthought. While not really bad songs in and of themselves, there is very little to distinguish them from what could be on any pop star’s “top 40 song of the moment.”
“Where Do We Go” and “Don’t Let This Feeling Fade,” are much more interesting and successful collaborations with other recording artists. The former, sung by Carah Faye, is a really great example of how a singer and a violinist can interplay well together. Carah’s lines are met with Lindsey’s violin in a way that dances around the vocals and adds to their emotional power. The violin part is both lovely in and of itself, and fits perfectly with the song. The later is filled with nice minor pentatonic and blues licks competing with Lecrae’s rapping. Compared with previous efforts I’ve heard to bring the violin into hip-hop, this is a really nice effort – that brings a high level of violin technique and interesting instrumental parts into a riff-and rhythm driven genre that makes that a difficult task.
One really nice thing about Mark’s project is that many of the songs were family affairs. “Attitude Adjustment” features Mark’s son, Elijah Wood, playing with sharp drumming that suggests military-like discipline, adding to this track’s an epic, soundtrack-like feel, as it moves soundtrack-like from ethereal bliss to an intense battle scene. His wife, Laura Kaye, matches the energy with her vocals that soar in a zone in between opera and soul.
Both Wood and Stirling use a compositional technique of alternating an “edgy” voice with a more lyrical one – in a way that makes their solos much more interesting and dramatic. This song is an especially strong use of that technique that is going to start showing up in my solos and improvisations more often. Both performers make intensive use of these contrasts to keep their instrumental songs interesting, and more emotionally engaging.
Final verdict –
Mark Wood’s Turbow gets a 5/5 stars from me. A must for anyone interested in how bowed strings can sound truly creative. I’m sure violinists of all kinds, even thoughts not necessarily interested in Mark’s progressive metal genre will find this a deeply inspiring and interesting record.
I’m giving Lindsey Stirling’s Brave Enough 3/5 stars. I would recommend sampling individual tracks before buying the entire album, as some songs are more interesting than others. That being said, there is a lot of great stuff here. Stirling’s skeptics would do good to give this album an honest look; I believe they will be pleasantly surprised by the level of musicianship and mature depth of emotional expression.