Should you look at the discography for Tony Levin you will surely wonder who he hasn't played for. In addition to his legendary work with Peter Gabriel and King Crimson, he's played for Carly Simon, Alice Cooper, Ringo Starr, John Lennon, Tom Waits, DC Talk, Michael W. Smith, Ric Ocasek, Pink Floyd, Stevie Nicks, Laurie Anderson, James Taylor, Yes, Paul Simon, Mark Knopfler, Indigo Girls, Warren Zevon, Paula Cole and Chuck Mangione, just to name a very limited few. Levin also developed Funk Fingers which are essentially small drumsticks attached to the fingers and designed to hammer on the bass string.
Pieces of the Sun is the follow-up to his 2000 solo album, Waters of Eden, utilizing the same group of uber-musicians to flesh out his ideas. The album opens with Larry Fast's immediately recognizable keyboard playing, epic and hopeful, before chaotic drums and manic bass stage a chase scene through an electronic funhouse. In the midst of this madness is a quiet acoustic respite compliments of The California Guitar Trio, followed by more powerful themes. With acoustic guitars and a medieval melody, "Aquafin" brings to mind a relaxed Phil Keaggy acoustic piece. Speaking of great guitarists, Jesse Gress plays a mean axe on the title track which opens with a simple drum pattern that repeats as ominous, thick keyboards drift overhead. Later, percussive Funk-Fingered bass provide stark contrast to the soaring Satriani-like guitar melodies. Originally written and recorded by Peter Gabriel but never released, "Dog One" is a fun, rubbery song that would have been at home on Adrian Belew's Twang Bar King. Also in the Belew-vein is "Ooze" with a monolithic melody, Funk-Fingered guitar, cello (played by Levin), and Belew-esque guitar noodlings, all reminding me of the more esoteric tracks from Belew's forgotten instrumental Desire Caught By The Tail. "The Fifth Man" is a wild experiment in cross-rhythms with excellent drumming by Jerry Marotta and Levin on the Chapman stick, a unique 12-string instrument where the strings are tapped, allowing for complex, multi-part arrangements to be played with both hands. Originally played exclusively with keyboards on Synergy's Cords album, "Phobos" is an intricate, fast-paced composition full of cross-rhythms and insanely complex parts, even for a computer, yet played to perfection by these impossibly talented musicians.
While some solo albums written by bass players feature the low-end to ridiculous extremes, Levin is first and foremost a musician and while the bass is always present and always interesting, it is not the focus. Instead, the focus is on the twelve well-written, often cinematic instrumentals that will appeal especially to fans of King Crimson and Peter Gabriel but also to those who enjoy jazz-fusion, creative instrumental compositions and dead-on musicianship.
This review first appeared in WhatzUp, April 2002.