Words Can’t Express

Now that the Ides of March are a memory and its time for a new Emperor to take control of all things Cheese Metal, we’ve been commanded to head in another direction. One rarely traveled by most rock bands. Our new path is that guided by music only – no silly and bothersome words to get in the way of a really good journey. (And no, uh, no Journey either.)

The instrumental is a rare creature in rock, instrumentals usually hang out with the loser kids over on the other side of the room playing jazz and the blues. Which is not to say that instrumentals are un-cool, but it is to say that the perception of instrumentals in rock music is.

There really is no valid reason for this of course.

In fact, in the late 80′s and early 90′s quite a few guitar gods like Eric Johnson, Joe Satriani, Yngwie Malmsteen and Gary Hoey had a really great run of hits with their slash and burn instrumentals topping the charts quite often one right after the other. And then, it all kind of stopped as quickly as it began and instrumentals were quietly and without fanfare ushered off the radio once more.

In all the years of rock history there have only been a few short windows here and there when an instrumental would actually have a chance at becoming a hit. The early 60′s was probably the prime era of rock instrumentals until the coming of the solo guitar gods in the late 80′s but the 60′s stuff was primarily surf music. Dick Dale, The Ventures, The Surfaris, great stuff and all but kind of on the fringe of rock music.

So in 1977 one had to wonder what the heck Mick Jones, Al Greenwood and Ian McDonald were thinking when they released their first – and as it turned out – only instrumental.

Coming off of their 5 million selling debut – and self titled – album, Foreigner could pretty much do whatever they wanted to do. Once in the studio to record the follow-up album, Double Vision, band leader and guitarist Mick Jones, rhythm guitarist Ian McDonald and keyboard player Al Greenwood were in the mood to throw something a bit different on to the new project.

“Tramontane”, (meaning wind from the north or, conveniently enough, a foreigner,) was a chance to show off a bit of the proggy rock skills they had built up from their experiences in their different bands prior to forming Foreigner.

It certainly stands out from the rest of Double Vision album and it really doesn’t seem to have any real connection to the rest of the album at all. That’s not really a bad thing, just unexpected from the pop rock monster that Foreigner became. There was a hint of this prog-rock flair on the first album with the track “Starrider” but outside of these two songs, the proggyness simply faded away buried by a landslide of dollars. (They quickly learned where the money was – no doubt.)

“Tramontane” is certainly compelling. Starting with some guitar strums while a click, click, click, click muffled guitar string and bass is picked the feel is quite edgy, you’re waiting for it to happen and its teasing you a bit.

Then the keyboards come in with a synth string section in the back and soon “Tramontane” finally takes off. There are layers of keyboards and synth all over the place with several counter melodies running circuits up and down as Ed Gagliardi’s bass has turned into an angry serpent like sound slithering through the melody crushing all that stands in it’s way. It’s so wonderfully overblown!

The keyboards and synthesizers keep chugging along as Jones’ guitar and Dennis Elliot’s drums make there way to the front on the progression. This is definitely a keyboard song but Jones is sure to have his leads cap off a few rounds, presumably trying to hit that snaky bass…

They never did anything like it before or since but “Tramontane” is a classic rock instrumental. It’s got everything from overdone keyboards, overdone bass and overdone guitars. In other words, a nearly perfect rock n’ roll instrumental.

About Pete

Pete is a professional-musician-with-a-day-job based in California's Inland Empire, as well as a veteran sound engineer in the studio and for live shows. He's been a lover of classic rock since back when it was known as "rock" and has in more recent years developed a country habit as well.
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One Response to Words Can’t Express

  1. Michele says:

    ♪ I like around 1:55 when the song starts to really build. I’ll have to watch a friend play it sometime, it’s just an incredible sound building and building. Everything intertwines around the bass and around 3:12 it get’s even better. A very aptly named song ♫

    Thanks for this one Pete