Paul Gilbert – ‘Twas Review

Paul Gilbert – ‘Twas Review
Paul Gilbert – ‘Twas Review

When I received a recent summons to Steel Druhm‘s office, burned onto a square of tawny calf’s hide and left in my mail cubby, my stomach dropped. AMG’s ancient adjutant works from the old sanitarium wing of our compound’s sub-basement. Staff enter without ever exiting. When I arrived at his heavy wooden door trimmed with iron, it moaned open before I could lift my hand to knock. “Sit” boomed a voice. The room smelled of old books and toilet hooch. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I could see a medieval torture rack turned office table. It held a pre-independence map of New England with carefully placed Monopoly game tokens. A crudely painted portrait of Dio hung on the wall. My eyes avoided the hulking form behind the desk pouring over cuneiform tablets. “You’re the Christmas guy,” he said. “I am.” “Review this Christmas album or die.” He touched three fingers to his temple and an album materialized in my hand. It had a decidedly un-metal cover depicting a wonky reindeer on a field of powder blue. I looked up to find Steel staring wistfully into the distance. “I was there, you know.” “Where was that, sir?” “The first Christmas.” We sat in silence for a moment. “You’re dismissed,” he said.

As official Lore Keeper of the First Age of Metal, Steel is well acquainted with Paul Gilbert and his classic heavy metal band Racer X. Unfamiliar with either name, I was surprised to find I know his work from my junior high days of listening to Mr. Big cassettes. As a guitarist, Gilbert is a throwback to that heady era of hard rock when wheedly-wheedly was king, and few could wank a guitar to completion quite like him. ‘Twas is his holiday gift to an indifferent unsuspecting world, wherein over 12 classic covers and more solos than an incel convention, the true meaning of Christmas is revealed: oodles and oodles of noodles. This is an instrumental album, so lead guitar stands in for the vocal parts while keyboards and drums support unintrusively like the kids in the Christmas pageant playing sheep. It’s all as technically adept and blandly polished as one might expect from an aging virtuoso, but it also smells faintly of nutmeg and cinnamon.

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Since no one will ever listen to this album outside a two-week window, and likely never by oneself as that would be sad, we must measure its success by how it would play in various scenarios. An office holiday party, for instance. Once the white elephant gift exchange is over, the conference room is cleared and the LED laser light projector is switched on. A guitar’d figure steps from behind the copy/fax machine. It’s Paul Gilbert. He swings his axe into place and blasts through some rapid-fire sweep picking before settling into an oddly slow and solemn rendition of “Frosty the Snowman.” Few of the co-workers smoke, but some lift their vape pens in place of lighters. A minute-thirty later, the song turns hard left into a jaunty Caribbean rocksteady, never mind that placing a snowman in the tropics is like placing a human on the surface of Venus. Everyone forms a conga line and things get crazy. Suddenly there’s another shift into a barroom Chicago blues strut. Craig from accounts receivable looks at the IT guy he doesn’t know that well and goes “This is pretty badass.” Craig drives a Volvo. It’s beige. Madonna‘s Ray of Light never leaves the CD player. ‘Twas is a resounding holiday party success.

But what about placing this music in a historic scenario? Say, the WWI Christmas truce of 1914? It’s Christmas eve on the battlefield. The rifles fall silent as German and British troops climb from their trenches to nervously cross no-mans-land unarmed. Mortal enemies suddenly clasp hands, sing carols and exchange small gifts of cigarettes and field rations. A friendly game of football is organized. A German soldier notices a figure climb from behind some sandbags. “Was ist das?” he asks as Paul Gilbert positions his amp. Now, I know you have questions. How did he get there? Magic. What is his amp plugged into? Christmas. Gilbert launches into more sweep picking, startling the soldiers. Someone shouts “MACHINE GUN!” as chaos explodes. Men rush back to the trenches cursing the enemy’s betrayal. For the next four minutes, “Three Strings for Christmas,” a country-western tinged original with bluesy guitar licks and tremolos a-plenty plays over a scene of gritty carnage like some cartoonishly macabre Wes Anderson film montage.

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Alright, that scenario was a bit unfair. Let’s give Mr. Gilbert a mulligan and place him in a different historical context. It’s the very first Christmas. The infant Jesus is swaddled in a manger as Mary, Joseph and three shepherds stand in quiet awe. A figure steps from behind a donkey with a guitar and amp. No one bats an eye. Mary and Joseph just had a God-baby and the shepherds saw a literal heavenly host in their field, so this shit doesn’t phase them. A surprisingly straightforward rendition of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” follows. The shepherds sway to the music. Mary especially likes the airy synth accompaniment. The donkey sits in the straw and lays its head on Steel Druhm‘s shoulder.1 Seeing that things are well received, Gilbert shoehorns in some unrelated material he’s probably been kicking around for awhile. He does this a lot throughout ‘Twas, with songs like “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” and “I Saw Three Ships” abandoning the source material for long stretches in favor of original blues rock compositions, blistering fingerpicking and soulful guitar struts. The assembled worshipers don’t mind, and things start to get rowdy. The authorities respond to a noise complaint and next thing you know Paul Gilbert, Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, three shepherds, a donkey and Steel are standing before Herod, nervously glancing around.

‘Twas falls into the ever-growing category of “Christmas albums nobody asked for and few will remember by somewhat well-known aging musicians.” It’s predictably self-indulgent, but as these things go, it’s a novel and capable effort. Even I can’t resist the crunchy guitar tone and aching rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” Gilbert plucks out, but this is far too self-serious to enter my holiday rotation. It’s serviceable background music for a Christmas gathering, but terrible for trench warfare.2


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