Del Suelo’s second studio album, The Musician’s Compass: A 12 Step Programme, might seem a little daunting at first glance. Erik Mehlsen, the musical mastermind behind the band, earned considerable praise for Del Suelo’s debut I Am Free, a release standing out for multiple reasons. Mehlsen’s stylistically diverse and articulate guitar work, his accessible yet imaginative musical arrangement, and the strong literary qualities of his lyrical content stamped Del Suelo’s debut with individualism we rarely encounter in the modern music world. His storytelling powers reach a higher peak with Del Suelo’s sophomore release and the conceptual nature of the song cycle, twelve songs (natch) chronicling a day in the life of a band on tour has a little bit of everything to recommend it. There’s narrative in the album’s development, there’s rough-hewn moments of pure street poetry, and there are other instances when Mehlsen’s talent for a telling image sears your attention.
“Second Encore” picks up the album’s story at a telling point. Mehlsen opts to begin his story at the end of a concert, high tide in a sense, the band crackling with energy as they close their set. His talents as a guitarist are apparent with this song alone, but the rhythm section work sets a definite tone for “Second Encore” the drums and bass will sustain throughout the whole album. “Pack Rats” hits the spot from the first second with its steady slightly behind the beat drumming and Mehlsen’s clipped soulful riffing. His guitar is capable of covering bases other players simply don’t have the skill or inclination to address. He’s a tasteful player, as well, who clearly values the instrument’s ability to play against a top notch rhythm section and his lead work on “Pack Rats” rides a relaxed, eloquent wave.
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“Berlin Calling” does a sharp job of capturing the intended punk vibe and has enough musical variety for three songs packed into its brief one minute twenty two second duration. The follow up to this song and the album’s fourth “A Lust Supreme” includes vivid keyboards highlighted in a bigger way than we’ve experienced with the earlier songs and more of an emphasis on mixing melody and atmospherics over the guitar driven groove fests of the earlier tracks, Mehlsen employs sound effects once again during the introduction for “Nightstream” and the slight echo surrounding his voice is one of the factors distinguishing this tune from earlier numbers on the release. The sedate arrangement has a wafting, dream-like quality and the spartan instrumentation allows listeners a chance to hone in on Mehlsen’s lyrical skills.
Referencing a popular Oasis album is an unexpected move, but it’s a “device” Mehlsen uses to imaginative effect on the album and “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?” does its part in making you forget any notions of Brit pop with its languid electrified jangle and appropriate, given the lyrics, sleepy vocals. Commitment withstand exhaustion is a major theme of this song and its one of the album’s most effective moments. The improbably titled “666hz, the Frequencies of the Beast” seems to promise blistering hard rock, but Mehlsen throws his audience a curve ball with its romping instrumental breaks and propulsive, restless rhythms.
The second to last song “Darn that Dream/Stairway to Eleven” suggests this will be a playful number, but it’s one of the better written pieces on The Musician’s Compass: A 12 Step Programme and punctuates its weary despair with fractured guitar melodies and some mournful brass bubbling up from the mix. It’s the album’s longest track and builds to a surprisingly rousing finale. “Walk the Plank” concludes Del Suelo’s second album with another moderately paced and layered performance led by Mehlsen’s vocals and guitar. The ambition of this work is impossible to miss, but it’s modulated with such control that there’s none of the bloat and self-serving indulgence typically common to albums of this ilk. Del Suelo’s The Musician’s Compass: A 12 Step Programme goes places few artists today can go and brings us along on a moonlit midnight ride.