By Ed Enright | Published February 2021
When Tony Levin, Markus Reuter and Pat Mastelotto traveled to Asia in early 2020 for a series of gigs as the Stick Men with special guest Gary Husband, their tour quickly devolved into a single date at the Blue Note in Nagoya, Japan, as rapidly spreading COVID-19 and other complicating factors led to multiple cancellations. But that one show, played before a small audience with little preparation except a few soundcheck run-throughs, turned out to be an epic performance. Sure, the Stick Men had already played hundreds of gigs since the trio’s formation in 2009, bringing its metal-edged brand of improv-heavy instrumental rock to audiences around the world over the course of multiple tours. But the addition of keyboardist Husband to the established lineup—Levin on Chapman Stick (a fully polyphonic chordal instrument that’s also capable of electric guitar-like leads and deep bass lines), Reuter on Touch Guitar (which, like the Stick, is played using a “tapping” technique) and Mastelotto on drums and electronic percussion—made for a sublime experience, as documented on the pristine recording Owari.
By turns ethereal and aggressive, this music is a weird wedding of dreamy soundscapes and churning mechanics that produces a consciousness-heightening effect and encourages focused listening. Husband fits into the picture like a seasoned regular, incorporating sci-fi synth atmospherics and snaky keyboard lines into the Stick Men’s dense sonic realm. Standout tracks include the heavily distorted “Schattenhaft” (from the band’s 2016 studio album, Prog Noir) and the relatively mellow “Crack In The Sky,” a staple in the group’s live repertoire consisting of long, sustained arcs and featuring a spoken-word contribution from Levin. Another highlight is the hypnotic title track, a group improvisation that sounds like it was performed underwater (in the company of singing whales). Owari will resonate with Stick Men devotees, as well as fans of guitarist Robert Fripp’s iconic prog-rock band King Crimson, which includes Levin and Mastelotto in its lineup of instrumental all-stars.