Back in the mid-80s I had a musician friend who was an avid fan and collector of solo instrumental guitar albums, or what some would call "muso albums". They were the sort of albums that were advertised in the pages of Guitar Player Magazine and always promised some blinding fret-work from the newest stars of the heavy guitar world, which at the time would have included names like Joe Satriani, Tony MacAlpine, Marty Friedman, Paul Gilbert & Vinnie Moore. Those albums no doubt contained some good music, but their main appeal was always to fellow musicians who could appreciate all the intricacies, techniques and innovations of the guitar playing, more so than just the average rock fan.
This debut solo effort from Finnish guitarist Elmo Karjalainen, "Unintelligent Designs", reminded me vaguely of those old "muso albums" - only with a bit more of a prog-metal influence...as well as a dash of quirky humor.
I suppose the big question with an album like this is whether or not the artist has the musical chops to pull off an album that is centered mostly around the guitar playing. Well, the answer to that question is a definite "yes". Karjalainen can play, no doubt about that! At times, he's the consummate shredder, displaying impressive speed and precision. At other times can sound quite gentle & melodious, and even travels into a bit of jazz-fusion territory occasionally In fact, the album never stays in any one place for too long, and the 16 featured compositions cover a wide range of tones, colors and styles, from the mellow to the outright headbanging. But I suspect that it's the epic, 9-minute track "Oneself as Another" that will appeal the most to prog-rock/prog-metal fans, featuring some dexterous fret-work, a colorful array of guitar sounds and some snaking twists and turns of rhythm. Another memorable track is "Sanna", featuring some beautiful harmonized dual-guitars and a dreamy, floating feel that should appeal to fans of Camel or Pink Floyd.
...Oh', and I did mention the quirky humor, didn't I? A "Parental Advisory" on the front cover reads "this record contains many tunes that are over 3 minutes long and no singing, and is this totally unsuitable for anyone". After an inviting, new-agey opening to the CD, the second track begins surprisingly in comic cacophony, as if the guitarist has suddenly lost his skills (spoiler: don't worry, he hasn't.) I've also never before experienced an album where the artist's spoken voice breaks-in after a few songs to announce, "Welcome to my CD. It is a pleasure to have you along and I hope you enjoy the ride."...No doubt some people's enjoyment of this CD may depend on just how open they are to some of it's eccentricities, and I've only named a few of them.
All in all, I personally found "Unintelligent Designs" to be a pretty enjoyable ride with some intriguing scenery along the way. While it's not the type of album that I would listen to regularly, it could certainly make for an interesting diversion on those occasions when the mood for something just a bit more diverse or quirky strikes. Karjalainen also serves as the guitarist for the popular Finnish heavy metal band Deathlike Sentence (who have enjoyed Top 40 success on Finland's album charts), so fans of metal guitar may want to look into his work there as well.
Reviewed by Jeff Matheus on December 9th, 2012