Review – Nick Fletcher – The Cloud of Unknowing – by John Wenlock-Smith

Nick Fletcher is a man of many talents for not only is he the guitarist in the excellent John Hackett band, he also has his own acoustic guitar recitals happening in the North of England. Last year he released his excellent solo album ‘Cycles Of Behaviour’, which was very highly regarded. In addition, Steve Hackett, no less, has stated that he considers Nick to be the finest Jazz Rock guitarist in the country. In the intervening months Nick has completed and released his new album ‘The Cloud Of Unknowing’, let us have a look and see shall we?

The album consists of nine tracks which are all thematically linked by the album’s attempts to illuminate a journey towards enlightenment, understanding and the acceptance of how things are and our place within that cycle. It is mainly instrumental, although it has vocals on the fifth and ninth songs and is best heard as a single piece of music to get the best out of it and to allow the journey to unfold as you listen.

Nick says the album came out of lockdowns and during the time of the pandemic in which he became open to search for deeper meaning and value to life. He did this by looking at mythology and to Christian mysticism from the likes of St John Of The Cross, whose words that illuminate the paradox we face are shown on the inner CD sleeve. Right, enough background, let’s hear the music…

The first piece, Out Of The Maelstrom, is a brutal hard-hitting track that reminded me of Billy Cobham’s ‘Spectrum’ and the track Quadrant 4 as it has a similar vitality and energy to it. It is full of dynamism and a mad organ from Dave Bainbridge, off which Nick plays flurries of notes and runs and it’s all highly impressive. Even better though is the more reflective The Eyes Of Persephone, which features a great flowing piano solo from Dave and over which Nick soars, playing some fluid guitar lines that would not be out of place on a Camel album. However, it still has a fire burning underneath making it a formidable and exceptional track

We then move into a set of five tracks that together form a suite entitled ‘Scenes From The Subconscious Mind’.

The suite opens with We Need to Leave This Place…Right Now!, twenty seconds of modern life noises, traffic and sirens and the like that display the unrest of life, this then moves into the more, almost metallic, crunch of Pandemonium which is rather brutal really, although it allows a great platform for Nick to solo from, adding some very sweet slide guitar tones in the latter part. This is all magnificently underpinned by the wonderful and highly versatile fretless bass of Tim Harries whose parts really add much to the sound, another magnificent track.

Then we have The Cloud of Unknowing Part 1 Part 2 Part 3, the first vocal track from Stuart Barbour, who is a contemporary Christian musician who Caroline Bonnet suggested to Nick. His voice is very English sounding, sounding a little like John Wetton in his U.K. days. This is an album that is better with some volume as the sound unfolds as you listen, the more you play it the more you hear, the track ends in gentler but still highly atmospheric soundscapes.

We then have a gentle arpeggio led guitar piece called Awakening The Hydra, which in turn leads to Dance of the Hydra, a blistering five plus minutes of wild fusion playing and a monstrous riff that the likes of Metallica would love It is a brutal, kicking piece of music with lots of wild guitar riffs and manic drumming from Russ Wilson. Nick is all over this track, employing many of his artistic tools to profound effect, there is furious playing but he never loses sight of feeling, melody and touch and this closes out the suite perfectly.

Arcadia is a classical guitar piece that flows seamlessly into The Paradox Part 1 Part 2. This is a very questioning song that asks questions about how we live today. There is a great synthesiser solo from Dave Bainbridge at the halfway mark and a very spacey, yet fluid, guitar line from Nick carries the song forward, along with more subtle slide parts that really add to the atmosphere of the song. The song ends gently with classical guitar playing that draws everything to a close and completes our journey. Hopefully, during the journey, we should have gained enough insight to be able to continue our lives in the light of the wisdom that has been handed to us, to discover, absorb, and allow us to illuminate the paths that lie before us.

The Cloud Of Unknowing’ is an astonishing album that reveals more and more of itself as you become familiar and open to its themes. It is deeply spiritual and is one that we invariably need in these days of turmoil that the world is facing. Whatever you believe, this album is at least a call the ponder, muse and meditate even if only for yourself, why not try it? It is a highly highly recommended listening experiencefor the discerning music fan.

Released 6th June, 2022.

Order direct from the musician here:

Nick Fletcher – The Cloud of Unknowing CD | Nick Fletcher guitar (nickfletcherguitarmusic.com)

Interview With John Hackett – John Wenlock-Smith

In this piece John talks to John Hackett about his latest album, a collection of songs recorded during lockdown in spring of 2020 in which John plays all instruments and produced and mixed the album on his own. The album ‘The Piper Plays His Tune’ is the result, released on his own Hacktrax label.

John Wenlock-Smith: Morning John, are you keeping well?

John Hackett: Yes, I have been doing quite a few walks with my wife trying to lose the lockdown tummy that has emerged because of watching Netflix at night whilst eating chocolates!

JWS: We have been doing that as well. The dog starts barking at a pigeon outside and is removed out of the way, lockdown, thank goodness it is coming to an end eh?

JH: Yes, it has been a tough time for many people.

JWS: Unfortunately it has, especially for people like yourself who have been without any income for over a year.

JH: I have been fortunate as my wife works from home, so I have been able to do a bit from home.

JWS: Well, I am retired now as the result of a stroke which has left me with vascular dementia but I get support from my local stroke survivors group. I have heard your new album and I like it, it is quite mellow though.

JH: Well, it is a collection of songs that I guess you would say is quite melody driven as I have spent most of my life as a flute player, which basically means you are following the tune.

JWS: So your wife works from home you say?

JH: Yes, she is an administrator for the church and she is particularly good with technology, which has been especially useful.

JWS: I have been listening back to some of the older stuff you worked on, starting with ‘The Geese and The Ghost’ and ‘We Are Not Alone’, then ‘Another Life’ and ‘Sketches of Satie’ with your brother Steve, I like the live CD that came with that album.

JH: Well, that was early days for the band, I think that was about the fourth show as a band, recorded at the Classic Rock Society who were very generous to us as a band, allowing us to record that show for posterity. I suppose that album is a bit more ‘proggy’ than some of the more classical stuff I’ve been involved with, especially the opening track Take Control and also the track Winds of Change, in which Nick Fletcher, our guitarist, gets room to play a little. My Brother Steve said recently that he thinks Nick is the best jazz rock guitarist in the country at the moment. High praise indeed, I do not know if you have Nick’s album ‘Cycles of Behaviour’ but it is a real testament to his playing.

JWS: Yes ,I have that album, I have just done an interview and album review that will be published on Progradar shortly. I especially liked Philosopher King, the longest track on the album.

JH: I am glad you like that one.

JWS: I like long songs, it gives them room to stretch and breathe a little, give me a longer song anytime.

JH: Sounds like a song title, I might use that in a lyric sometime.

JWS: Go for it, you can have that one for free.

JH: Good, I will look forward to reading that John, he (Nick Fletcher) and I have a lot in common. He has spent a lot of time as a classical guitarist and I have spent a lot of my time as a classical flautist, although we both love rock music and we both feel comfortable working in both fields. I used to think that I had to make a choice, one or the other, but Nick and I both feel that they can feed off each other, in that you can apply some of the techniques used in classical pieces in the rock stuff. Really, the rock stuff benefits from playing the classical pieces too, with the rock stuff you are always thinking about keeping it strong and I think that background can really help in with the energy and direction you create.

Nick and I worked together on the ‘Beyond The Stars’ album and he had a vision for the album. It has a fabulous long track, That Ship Has Sailed, on which Nick gets a chance to really stretch out, it is his Pink Floyd moment, his Comfortably Numb, as it were.

JWS: So what was your first love in rock music?

JH: Well I started off as a blues guitarist, my brother taught me House Of The Rising Sun and showed me a few bits, then we saw King Crimson with Ian Macdonald playing the flute and Robin Miller on oboe. That got me into learning to play the flute, which I did at University in Sheffield. In 1978 I joined Steve’s band as a flautist/bass player, recorded ‘Voyage of the Acolyte’, amongst his other earlier albums, and toured extensively with him as part of the band. Good times! we still work together occasionally, usually doing a Christmas show at Trading Boundaries in which I play flute, along with Roger King on keyboards and Rob Townsend on sax, that is always a good venue as the audience are at tables near the stage.

JWS: Yes, we have not got to Trading Boundaries yet as it is too far from where we are in Cheshire, although I do have a Downes Braide Association album that has a live show from Trading Boundaries with it.

It certainly looks like a great little venue; we have seen you with Steve Hackett a few times on his more recent tours in Manchester, often with Amanda Lehmann in tow too. I suppose Sheffield to Manchester is only about an hour away?

JH: Yes, not too far at all and it is always great to be a part of Steve’s shows, I really enjoy those appearances.

JWS: Obviously gigging is coming back slowly,

JH: We have our first gig in August at the 1865 in Southampton.

JWS: Are you playing in Bilston at the Robin 2?

JH: Yes we are playing there as part of an all-day festival.

JWS: Will there be a new John Hackett Band album soon?

JH: Yes, I certainly hope so, we need to do something soon, watch this space.

 JWS: Have you had your vaccinations?

JH: Yes, I had those at the Sheffield Arena, I am not sure if the others have had theirs yet, I guess we will find out soon enough. I had to take my shirt off and I was wearing a John Hackett Band T Shirt and the nurse said what’s your T shirt and I said it’s my band, I said I’d always hoped to get to Sheffield Arena as a band appearing, not as an OAP getting vaccinated! 

JWS: You have some nice guitar playing on the album.

JH: Thank you, I was listening to an old Tamla song and heard some bongo’s and I thought I could do with some of those. I went out shopping and I found some in Lidl, I thought that was a sign to get on with it!

JWS: Would you do another album in that way?

JH: I would not rule it out but not yet. 

JWS: Well I think that’s all I must ask you about, thanks very much for talking to me and enjoy the rest of your weekend.

JH: Yes, Thanks for your time John, I’ll drop you an email later, so you have my email too, nice talking with you.

‘The Piper Plays His Tune’ was released 18th November, 2020.

Order the album from bandcamp here:

The Piper Plays His Tune | John Hackett (bandcamp.com)

Review – Nick Fletcher – Cycles of Behaviour – by John Wenlock-Smith

Nick Fletcher is not a well known name like Steve Hackett or Steve Morse, yet he carves out his own mark on the guitar world and has done consistently over the years, enjoying a period of solo classical guitar playing, time as a session player and, in the past decade, as part of a duo with John Hackett (Steve’s younger flute playing  brother). More recently he has been found wielding the six string in the John Hackett Band with whom he recorded the excellent ‘We Are Not Alone’ album in 2014 and, more recently, the 2018 release ‘Beyond The Stars’, all of which have led Nick to this point, the release of ‘Cycles of Behaviour’ earlier in March this year.

On this album Nick gets a palette on which he can draw his guitar tones as expressively and openly as he has long wished to do, the record giving him a perfect platform. Nick has wisely chosen friends and colleagues to help in this musical crusade and we find the likes of John Hackett contributing flute, piano and vocals along with Dave Bainbridge who contributes Hammond Organ and Mellotron. Tim Harries provides bass guitar, Russ Wilson occupies the drum stool and Caroline Bonnet adds keyboards and backing vocals.

The album consists of 8 tracks of varying lengths with everything written by Nick, apart from Interconnected and Philosopher King which were written with John Hackett. Four of the tracks are Instrumentals with the other four being vocal pieces. The album opens with the instrumental tour-de-force (and title track) Cycles of Behaviour, which is a very jazz fusionist piece complete with a superb organ underpinning from Dave Bainbridge and a steady beat from Russ Wilson.

Nick then begins to shred a la Al Di Moela, the shred is brief and very effective before the piece returns to the strong central melody. A prominent Hammond organ and guitar interplay follows, all highly effective, topped off by some more guitar flourishes before moving into a more subdued section to bring this fine track to a subdued conclusion.

Heat is Rising is the first vocal track with John Hackett’s subtle voice. This song is a love song really, using the heat as a metaphor for a burgeoning relationship and all the joy that situation brings to two people who are in the midst of it all, Nick delivers a quite lengthy and lyrical solo in which he shows some of the tools in his guitar bag with rapid playing and note flurries. This is all supported by Hammond from Dave again the song reconvenes again with a strong chorus being repeated to the close.

This is followed by the more sedate and tranquil tones of Hope In Your Eyes which opens moodily before fabulous keyboards lead us into the gentle melodies being played arpeggio style by Nick, the delicate vocal is then introduced. This song is gentle, like waves on a seashore, and there is a lot of openness in the sound, it is all very laid back and gentle and the tempo is steady and measured and it works with the song as it unfolds. An acoustic interlude with delicate flute from John leads onto a repeat of the chorus and thereafter to a guitar solo from nick that really shines. His use of melody is fabulous and, although busy, the solo is still highly memorable and very lyrical and returns the song to the chorus once again. We are led into a final verse and a further flute passage that is very gentle and Genesis sounding in parts, this brings the song to a gentle and effective finish. A beautiful song, elegantly played by all.

Tyrant and Knave is quite a hard hitting track with a crunchy rock beat to it.The song has a powerful guitar riff that propels it along and a great fiery solo where Nick unloads with both barrels before returning to a more spacious sound, although with an incendiary guitar in tow as well. It is really a full on guitar exercise with lots (and I mean lots!) of ultra-fast and impressive fretwork on display. For a short while, Nick takes his foot off the accelerator turning it into a much slower, but still expressive, section where a growling synth gives way to a far more languid and bluesy solo passage. It is all very atmospheric and ethereal sounding with strong playing making this a most enjoyable segment of the track, the piece then returns to the opening melody to close.  

Desolation Sound is another brief instrumental and one on which John Hackett gets free range to play his flute most ethereally with subtle keyboard backing and bass pedals. Nick plays guitar synth, adding extra textures to the track. Then we are on to Interconnected, another vocal track, which has a very pop type feel. The song is very upbeat and light in sound supported by some lovely guitar playing. There is a driving beat which makes it very commercial in sound, all in all a really enjoyable track.

The penultimate track is Annexation which is the final instrumental piece of the album. This piece opens with gentle flute and acoustic classical guitar before Nick takes things electric and plays a strong riff enhanced with excellent keyboards and drums. Nick then delivers a solo that with a lot of style and swagger to it before the song returns to a riffing section followed by another solo, this guy can really play some very fine guitar parts, as this track clearly shows!

The final track on the album, Philosopher King, opens with Nick playing slide guitar over a Pink Floyd sounding backing. It’s all very Dave Gilmour sounding and reminds me of Shine On You Crazy Diamond, it is different but just has that vibe to it. There are great dynamics with a good use of contrasts between light and shade. There is a superb solo section before John’s vocal recommence and you can hear Dave’s organ supporting the song with the fretless Bass of Tim Harries prominent too. A faster rhythmic section follows with stabbing organ sounds driving the track along, there are lots of nods to the prog of the 1970’s too, mainly Genesis and Yes. Everything then slows down and becomes more languid and subdued before more of that evocative slide guitar leads into the next verse of the track.

We return to flutes and classical guitar for about sixty seconds before a bell sounds and another epic guitar solo is delivered, Nick, clearly playing this passage with relish, style and skill. It is quite a lengthy solo here and one that really has room to grow, stretch impresses as it continues until the song finishes.

This song is a masterful example of guitar playing and ensemble playing, and this is the standout track on what is a strong and impressive collection of tracks delivered in various styles but all of which show that Nick Fletcher deserves the accolades from the likes of Steve Hackett, amongst others. He is one to watch to see what he does next. It is an excellent album and one that I recommend that you seek out to listen and enjoy for yourself.

Released 26th March, 2021

Order from Nick’s website here:

Nick Fletcher – Cycles of Behaviour CD | Nick Fletcher guitar (nickfletcherguitarmusic.com)

Interview With Nick Fletcher – John Wenlock-Smith

John Wenlock-Smith talks to Nick Fletcher about his new release ‘Cycles of Behaviour’.

1. What are the main themes of the album and why did you choose them?

That’s a good question John. The album has a thread which could be called a concept. The main idea was to have an album that reflected the current state of affairs in the world today. The title hopefully depicts the idea that humanity’s history seems to repeat itself, social and political ideas appear to come around time and again and we don’t seem to learn from the mistakes of the past.

2. Who are your main influences classically? rock, fusion and blues?

I have so many it’s very hard to pick just a few. I think Julian Bream was a huge inspiration for the classical guitar. David Gilmour, Jeff Beck, Allan Holdsworth, Steve Hackett, Andy Latimer and a Norwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal for the electric guitar.

3. You have a fabulous set of contributors on the album. Were these previously known to you and, if so, how?

Yes I have been friends with all the collaborators for many years, the exception being drummer  Russ Wilson. Russ and I had never met before the recording of the album, he came recommended by John Hackett who had played with Russ in the Book of Genesis tribute band and mentioned to me what an outstanding drummer he was. He was correct! Russ is the perfect  fit  for my music, as he has both the prog-rock and fusion techniques well covered and he is very creative.

Dave Bainbridge is one of my oldest friends, we met in 1979 and have worked together off and on ever since on albums and in bands. John Hackett and I have been working together ever since we first met in 2009 either as a flute and guitar duo or in the John Hackett BandCaroline Bonnett has also been a friend for many years and is a great singer, producer, sound engineer and keyboard player. Tim Harries and I go back to 1983. Tim was Bill Bruford’s bass player in ‘Earthworks’ and having Tim on the album was fantastic.

4. You used to do some work for Integrity Music, how did that come about and would you have worked on anything I may have heard of?

I worked as a session guitarist and as a producer with Integrity Music. I produced a CD with Dave Bainbridge called ‘Breaking of the Dawn’ and recorded 4 solo CD’s for them. I also produced the Celtic Expression series of 6 albums with Nigel Palmer who was the chap who co-produced and recorded the Iona albums with Dave. Over the years I did many sessions and also worked with Dave Bilbrough in his band for about 10 years.

5. Will you be doing gigs to support the album?

In short, unfortunately, no! Some of the material may get aired as part of the John Hackett Band. It’s impossible to get gigs under my own name at the moment. Also, to put together such a band of great musicians would be very difficult for logistical and financial reasons. It’s a shame as some of the music would be great to perform live! But, unfortunately, that’s the reality.

6. What next from you – do you have any projects in the pipeline?

My next project  will be released in June. This is something very different as it is a ‘classical flute and guitar duo’ album with John Hackett. It’s the third in a series we have recorded and this one is the music of J.S.Bach, Handel and Vivaldi! The album is called ‘The Goldfinch’ and named after a flute concerto By Vivaldi.

John is the soloist and I play an arrangement of the orchestral parts….it’s a great work and very virtuosic for the soloist, revealing  what a fantastic flautist John is. I am also, on the classical side, currently composing new works for the classical guitar to be published this year.

I have already started writing for a follow up to ‘Cycles of Behaviour’. The plan is to get it released next year hard on the heels of Cycles! It will feature the same line up but with more instrumentals and also a couple of amazing singers who I need to keep under wraps at the moment.

7. Which guitarists do you admire and why?

I love the classical guitar and Ana Vidovic is one of my all time favourite players. Her ability to draw you into her performances is second to none!

With the electric guitar at the moment I don’t hear many modern players that inspire me. That said, there are some amazing players around who blow me off the stage any day!! I do think that Allan Holdsworth was a true genius, and is greatly missed, but most modern players don’t have the visceral quality I like in the instrument….too much technique and little emotional impact. Technique is very important but has to be at the service of the musical content. David Gilmour, Jeff Beck and Andy Latimer are my go-to players for that visceral quality.

8. Which musicians would you most like to collaborate with and why?

Well John, that’s a hypothetical question, all the players I would love to work with are very much above my abilities so even if it did happen I would be so in awe my fingers would never make the notes! However, Chad Wackerman is the most incredible drummer who inspires me with his creativity and amazing chops, Rhonda Smith is a great bass player who I admire greatly and Derek Sherinian, the keyboard player, is another favourite prog musician.

9. What guitar amps and effects do you use?

I use Blackstar amps and mainly Boss effects. I play PRS guitars and a customised Fender Stratocaster.

 10. Do you have a favourite piece of music?

Wow! That’s so hard to answer! I love so much music that encompasses so many different genres. Classical music it would possibly be Mahler’s 2nd symphony. Prog it would be ‘Selling England by the Pound’ and jazz, anything by Keith Jarrett.

‘Cycles of Behaviour’ was released March 26th, 2021 and can be ordered from:

www.nickfletcherguitarmusic.com