Mark McGuire

Along The Way

"In the course of time, modern man has taken a rather blasé attitude towards the universe, of which he is so intimately a part. We look out around us at the most extraordinary and miraculous of worlds, and yet we are scantly astonished. Everything has gradually been deprived of its overtones. Children have much of wonder in them, but as we grow older this wonder ceases, as a kind of glibness takes it’s place. Actually, however…we have lost the sense of the sublime. There is probably nothing that we can ever turn our gaze upon so splendid as the sky at night. Yet to us, it is merely an interference with the routines and rhythms of the day. We’ve simply lost this innate romanticism that made life a wonderful experience when we felt more, and did not ‘know’ so much." Manly P. Hall – The Universe According to Esoteric Philosophy

At the time of writing this article, Mark McGuire’s Facebook page bears the quote above from the Canadian born author whose writings and lectures in the early 20th century challenged people’s assumptions about our spiritual roots and made people look at them in new ways. It seems McGuire is somewhat partial to arcane literature. ‘In Search of the Miraculous’, the third track on Along The Way – McGuire’s debut release on American indie label Dead Oceans – is named after a book by Russian author P.D. Ouspensky. McGuire recently said of the song in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine: "The main mantra of the song is, ‘All that we know is only learned,’ implying that all knowledge created and discovered by man is continuously open to re-evaluation and can always grow and change, which basically leaves reality open to all possibilities."

For Along The Way, McGuire has stepped out of the drone bubble and borrowed elements from the likes of Steve Reich and Brian Eno’s generative work. From the off, the record sits in astounding company. Give it the full attention it deserves, and the record becomes like a fine wine. All its richness and depth comes to the fore, and the longer you spend with it the more it gives, offering something new on every listen. This is what makes McGuire’s apparent study of esotericism even more interesting, as the authors – characterised by being understood by a small number of people with a specialised interest in their work – embody McGuire’s work since leaving his former band Emeralds. Along The Way is a record that will simply pass many by.

With nearing to 100 releases under various monikers to his name, McGuire’s output has been prolific, to say the least. But sometimes this has been his downfall as much as his strength. This output does seem to have slowed since his departure from Emeralds though. His last proper release being Get Lost in 2011 and this seems to have allowed McGuire time to let his recordings breathe. There is nothing claustrophobic about this record at all. At times the differences between Along The Way and Get Lost are dumbfounding. The key of these differences is the continuity of the former. Get Lost oft seemed a collection of ideas in new age progressive rock. A series of experiments in ambience put together on one recording, closed with an epic near twenty-minute finale.

However for all the departure from Get Lost, it does feel like the record was something of a brainstorming session to the more fully formed ideas on Along The Way. Don’t get me wrong; it was an absorbing record. Just one that signalled greater things to come, born from a necessity after his departure from Emeralds, as oppose to the seemingly far more organic backdrop to Along The Way. In Dead Oceans’ words "the conceptual album details an existential journey of an individual seeking definition and enlightenment" and in many ways the record can, at times, feel something like a spiritual experience. McGuire’s work as a solo artist makes you wonder what records make up his beloved collection at home. Based on Along The Way I would hazard a guess that alongside his reading into esoteric philosophies he has spent a lot of time with classical music recently. See, Along The Way is far and away McGuire’s most compositional work to date. It isn’t a collection of thirteen songs put together in the same recording session. It’s a work of music that seismically shifts in front of your ears. Melodies form crystalline shapes that grow, morph and solidify under a haze of generative ambience. Some of those ideas laid down on Get Lost have taken shape as an LP, designed to play through from start to finish.

On Along The Way McGuire proves himself as an aficionado of his craft. The opening track ‘Awakening’ presents fairly indolent plucking of an acoustic guitar and a mandolin before the bass arrives in ‘Wonderland of Living Things’, setting the bar for the warmth and groove of the record. Choral washes echo around ‘In Search of the Miraculous’ and by ‘To The Macrobes (Where Do I Go?)’ its an all out electric affair before ‘Astray’ takes us effortlessly back into the groove with another delicate bass tone. Much has been written about McGuire’s guitar playing in the past. In 2010 Ben Beaumont-Thomas of The Guardian referred to him as "the antithesis of the axe man" professing that he had created "the antidote to the indulgent guitar solo". In truth, not many guitarists have genuinely been able to stir this much emotion without the addition of the human voice since David Gilmour. Along the Way rolls and lulls towards its 12-minute centrepiece ‘The Instinct’. The video for this track summarises one of the finer points of the record. Absorbing visuals of Joshua Tree, California blend into one another before McGuire’s guitar track shimmers below, he flashes into sight opaque against the backdrop. And this is what sets the heart of the record. It’s easy to forget there’s one man behind the record but every now and again, as his crystalline guitar hooks come to the fore, he appears from beneath the haze of drifting ambience before disappearing back out of sight again. But with this McGuire’s stamp is sealed back on top of the record. Whereas Get Lost was a step away from the territory he formerly trod as part of Emeralds. Along The Way has echoes of his former bands crowning Does It Look Like I’m Here? all over it. Patient without ever becoming boring, Along The Way rides a rare juxtaposition between daytime and nighttime music. However if Does It Look Like I’m Here? was the sound of McGuire and co after dark, this record is certainly the sound of McGuire at the dawning of a new day.

On first listen I fully expected the album to take flight from here on in yet ‘The Instinct’ is followed by arguably the records most emotive point ‘The Human Condition (Song For My Father)’. Starting with field recordings of McGuire as a child taken by his dad it’s a recording that has a fantastic depth without ever getting too heavy or deep and has a vein of positivity running right through it. The human emotion present throughout makes Along The Way sound like a long lost score to a piece of Scandinavian cinema. And that’s what puts the record in the aforementioned astounding company. Few have managed to convey human emotion in their recordings with very little existence of an actual human present. But McGuire nails it. The record teasing the heart string with every fold and turn. With song titles like ‘The Human Condition (Song for my Father)’, ‘For the Friendships (Along the Way)’ and ‘Arrival Begins the Next Departure’ there is definitely a narrative to this record. And the field recordings do add a human element but as you listen a story begins to unfold in your imagination, much like reading a great book.

The first discernable vocals don’t come until ‘For The Friendships (Along The Way)’. Although it’s never truly clear what McGuire is singing, what is clear by this point is that, much like in the majority of his previous work, a lot of emotion went into this record. Some bands work from a high intensity, portraying a level of energy that went into the production, but it’s McGuire’s heart that pours into this record. He’s reflective, but positive. The record is clearly a sonic exploration of McGuire’s inner self. "This story is an odyssey through the vast, unknown regions of the mind," he explains in the liner notes, "The endless unfolding of psychological landscapes, leading to perpetual discoveries and expansions, in a genuinely emergent and infinite world of worlds." The record doesn’t in fact take full flight until its antepenultimate track ‘The War on Consciousness’. It’s a hypnotic piece that just before it’s half way point drops a beat that could quite easily have been borrowed from DJ Shadow’s The Private Press and alongside the ensuing string section, sets the record on a new plane. On ‘The Lonelier Way’ the record is in full flight and floats above the clouds. The emotion on show in the record’s earlier works has subsided. It’s like all the ingredients to the opening of the record on Valium. McGuire’s vocoded vocals nurture the sense of security in the record and you don’t want the warmth to end.

The final two tracks forms the epilogue of the record and in reality are one piece with no real break. The change in tracks just marks where the sedated former changes to fill the stereo for one final time as McGuire sings "The same way, exactly the same way", on repeat. It’s a meditative, modern psychedelia and a captivating listen that McGuire says, "is not a critique, it is not instructional, nor is it a proclamation that I believe I have gone through this journey and succeeded, not by a long shot. It is, however, a journey that I truly believe is offered to every man and woman who has ever lived, through the lightness that breathes through your heart when you feel the true touch of life, and the light of love." Manly P. Hall died before the Internet had truly taken over our lives, and I wonder what his feelings on the loss of the romanticism of life would be now we all hold the power to so much information. What I certainly think though is this, had he still been with us, Mark McGuire’s Along The Way would offer him a chance for that scant astonishment.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today