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Pat Metheny Orchestrion Review

Album. Released 2010.  

BBC Review

The Grammy winner drags a childhood obsession into the 21st century.

Kathryn Shackleton 2010

Summers spent tinkering with his granddad’s player piano left US guitarist Pat Metheny fascinated with the mechanics of making music. With Orchestrion, the 17-times Grammy winner drags his childhood obsession into the 21st century.

Orchestrions were mechanically-played mini-orchestras of the 1800s, often built around the player piano, and the album cover illustrates Metheny’s modern interpretation of the orchestrion. He sits dwarfed by looming racks of mechanisms, custom-built percussion instruments, guitarbots, Disklavier pianos and bottles, all controllable through his guitar via solenoids and MIDI.

Although it’s played by machines, this music sounds strikingly human. There are heartbeats in the percussion, voices humming in the strings, and wordless songs from blown bottles.

Though a daunting 15 minutes long, the title track is upbeat, with a nod to Irish folk and the consonance and dynamics you’d expect from Metheny’s music. There’s dense percussion everywhere you listen, and the whole album is steeped in his lyricism, with poignant guitar lines skating over wholesome harmonic changes.

Introspective pieces like Entry Point and Soul Search don’t work as well, though. The lack of a human touch on the piano is more noticeable, the bass can be stodgy and repetitive, and phrases don’t always end cleanly.  

Unlike Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, Orchestrion doesn’t parade each instrument down a musical catwalk. It’s the guitar or piano that leads on each track, while the other instruments provide texture. The dynamics are impressive and the instruments sound natural, but the excitement of one real human ego firing off another is missing.

Despite some shortcomings Orchestrion is Pat Metheny to the core. After all, he’s composed, played and improvised every sound that you hear. He’s come close to his aim of making this album more than a curiosity, but the real impact can surely only come from seeing his orchestrion in action.

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