Review by Chris Ruel
Ron Thal: Hermit
1997 Shrapnel Records
Ron Thal follows up his earth-shattering, boundary-stretching Bumblefoot with Hermit that continues Thal's exploration of tonal, timing, and thematic arrangement relationships for the purpose of effecting psychological impact on listeners with the music as a medium. This time around, Thal has added his vocals to the list of vices that he uses to actuate your synapses with impulses they have never before encountered, nor were they ever, in a million years of evolution, designed to be exposed. If this is your first listening to Ron Thal, there is nothing anybody can say to prepare you. Just brace yourself and hear it through.
Ron Thal makes a full-frontal assault on your psyche, adding his twisted vocals and clever lyrics to his off-beat musical style. Normally, I have a general disdain for vocals, unless the message is a good one or the vocals are extraordinary. However, in the case of Ron Thal's Hermit, I have had to expand my boundaries of acceptance to include messages that come from a very unusual angle or are very amusing. Though, Thal's vocals are really not too bad, it is the lyrics that make the vocals justified. And, it actually helps the eery Ron Thal mood that he voices his message with his own, unique vocals that really convey the emotion behind the lyrics.
Honestly, if I had not listened to Bumblefoot prior to Hermit, I might have just given Hermit a cursory listening and passed it off. But, what I learned from the strictly instrumental Bumblefoot, was that Ron Thal has some very interesting ways of capturing human emotions with his instrumentation, tones, arrangements, and phrasings that he deploys so tactically to this end. So, having this in mind when approaching Hermit, it is definitely helpful because it makes a listener quicker to pick up on these things the second time around. My take on Ron Thal is that you can't look at the chops, tones, and guitar work he utilizes in his compositions for their own value. But, you do have to look at the way that he arranges them to see what emotional effect they convey in the context of the rest of the composition. To me, Ron Thal is not about guitar chops and technicianry, he is about emotional impact on your psyche through composition... and now lyrics. But, his guitar capabilities definitely widen the scope of emotions that he is able to convey. And, this is just my view of things and I wouldn't want to state it as Ron's purpose, because only he can say what that is!
So, now on to the hunt! Hermit opens with an instrumental composition, "Zero", that arpeggiates some chords based on outside-sounding harmonies that carry Ron's disillusioned emotional baseline to the listener. The title track, "Hermit", ensues with Ron's signature, unpredictable changes that make drastic transitions between widely varying musical themes, liberally mixing up heavy-handed, crunching riffs with more sensitive themes for the purpose of emotional contrast. If it strikes you as severe, that is probably the intended effect. Read the lyrics and you will understand! So, Thal continues once again in this fashion of drastic contrast to assault your psyche and senses to get your attention on his message.
My favorite track that is aimed at a certain breed of guitarist, "I Can't Play The Blues", is a track that many musicians will probably find amusing because it ridicules the egocentric guitar hero. Ironically, to satire the egocentric guitar hero, Ron must deploy some pretty speedy and progressive runs to paint the image... very clever cover, Ron! Another notable track that rubbed me the right way is "Rowboat". Thal drags you down into a very disillusioned state for so long that when he finally gives you redemption and freedom from the chains, you will appreciate it that much more. And, "Rowboat" is the vessel that Ron uses in Hermit to cast off those shackles of oppression with its feel good transition and theme that pulls the entire perspective into the sunlight, and throws in some witty humor to wink at you knowingly. If not for this brief ray of sunlight, we might not know that behind all of Ron Thal's satirical and drastic views of the world, there lies an optimistic heart. But, with all the pain, turmoil, and disillusionment he drags us through, we appreciate it that much more when we see it.
OK. And, one final track that is notable is "Every Time I Shake My Head". This track is notable to me because of the musical styles that Thal pulls from including the smooth jazz Christmas guitar genre that one might hear in the mall around December. It really is impressive that Ron hears music wherever he goes, identifies the emotions that people correlate with that music, and then he deploys that music in a capable manner to achieve his desired psychological affect... which is usually pretty disoriented, if not demented!
I think to enjoy Hermit, you have to approach it for what it is. Don't try to analyze Ron's technique and guitar capabilities for their own value. Just listen to the music and forget what you know about technique and theory and all of that. Ron can play, but don't get distracted by it. If you can do that, the message will find its way to your ear and you might remember why you became so interested in music in the first place... because it captured or drove your emotions! And, that may just be what Ron Thal is really all about.