Metal fans have come to associate the name Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal with cutting edge projects in the genre. He ended up being among the seeming thousands of faces that gave the world Guns ‘n’ Roses “Chinese Democracy,” made a guest appearance on the signature comeback album of Indestructible Noise Command and found some time to make an impact on the cutting edge coming-out party for Destrage last year. That’s just a sampling of the times that Bumblefoot has graced music fans with his talent, but the eminent question then remains, what does this highly talented guitarist sound like on his own?
Odd though it may seem, the answer to that question is that he sounds shockingly little like the projects he’s been recently associated with. Rather than give fans more blistering metal, Bumblefoot’s new solo record “Little Brother is Watching,” is content to strip down and present the listener with carefully articulated rock music.
“Little Brother is Watching” is nearly the diametric opposite of John 5’s excellent “Careful With That Axe” from last year. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, just that the style and execution is completely different. John 5 styled his album to be a bunch of truncated instrumental ideas, themes and patterns that he toyed with until they had stayed their welcome and not a minute beyond. By comparison, Bumblefoot winds long tales and demonstrates his and his running mates’ ability to compose stories that function both as a reflection of the lyrical story and the various cleverly woven guitar selections. Where John 5’s record barely had songs that crested three and a half minutes, many of the tunes on “Little Brother is Watching” are well over five.
As far the composition is concerned, “Little Brother is Watching” functions just fine. The opening staccato and bouncy fun of “Clots” is one of the album’s strengths, blending some edge into the greater rock mix and creating a hook that is both recognizable and catchy. This continues into the up and down dark carnival of the title track, so the album is off to a good start, with Thal himself supporting the effort with carefully selected riffs and fitting solos.
As the album winds on, the effect becomes watered down. “Argentina” becomes a six minute wandering trek, quickly followed by the earnest but melodramatic “Don’t Know Who to Pray to Anymore,” which tips the scales at over seven.
“Little Brother is Watching” is often cute, which probably isn’t the intended adjective for the record. The haunted merry-go-round of “Cuterebra” is a stark reminder of Pink Floyd’s “Brain Damage,” both in pacing and buildup, but this new track never really impacts as expected. “Women Rule the World” is an okay song, but falls into the same pit of gimmickry. It’s hard to take the back half of the record seriously, because it doesn’t necessarily seem like Bumblefoot is. There’s a place for that kind of humor in music, but for whatever reason, it doesn’t fit here.
Evenually we get down to “Never Again” which gets back on track and will take listeners back a couple years to similar moments on Brandon Small’s “Galaktikon” record, but by this point the still waters of the record become fairly shallow.
“Little Brother is Watching” isn’t a bad record for any technical reason, it just feels like an underachieving one. While solo guitarists too often trip into an abyss of self-aggrandizing musical wankery, this record could have been improved with just a little more of that. As it is, Bumblefoot has produced a shoulder-shrug record, which is a shame considering his notable contributions to the genres around him.