Emmitt Chapman’s visionary instrument, the Chapman Stick, opened the world of keyboardlike counterpoint to string players, providing the spacious fretboard, the extended range, the touch response and the ergonomics required for the development of two-hand string tapping as a serious technique. Progressive rock – always on the hunt for novel instruments and evolutionary techniques – rode the Chapman Stick to a kind of rebirth at the dawn of the ‘80s.
Prog’s original spaceships of choice, the monosynths and polysynths by Moog, Arp and Oberheim, had grown a little fusty in the late castle-rock era of Yes, Emerson, Lake and Palmer and post-Gabriel Genesis. Not even the mathy, mythy realm of prog/rock was immune to the challenge and influence of punk. The pointy, compact Chapman stick – part guitar, part bass, part something alien and new – symbolized prog’s lean, funky and edgy new direction as it hung from the lanky frame of its most famous early adopter: rock god and Hudson Valley resident Tony Levin, who used the Stick to great effect on three landmark albums by King Crimson in the early ‘80s.
A virtuoso multi-instrumentalist, Stick player and progressive rock high adept, Michael Bernier continues to produce elegant, low-fat prog in the great tradition of Belew-era King Crimson and Allan Holdsworth. Bernier, who played with Levin in the Stickcentric outfit Stick Men, is so good at so many instruments (including drums, his principal instrument) that there is little for him to do except write, perform, record and self-produce albums of expansive, conceptual and expertly executed contemporary prog.
Bernier’s latest, Veil, incorporates electronics, loops and a healthy dose of ambient minimalism; but the rubber really hits the road in the angular, count-with-me progcraft of “The Edge of Death” and “Falling Down Steps.” The record has a real rock bite and weight, toying at times with metallic slabs of serrated fuzz. Its handful of vocal tracks owes more to the terse, droning melodicism and stacked harmonies of Alice in Chains than to the you’ll-never-solve-them-‘cause-they-don’t-mean-anything riddles of Jon Anderson and company.
As to the presence or absence of the Chapman Stick…well, that’s the thing. It’s hard to say. The Stick is essentially chameleonic. Furthermore, Bernier likes to warp and pixillate his string sounds in ways that call to mind another local legend: the non-traditional guitarist and composer David Torn, a/k/a Splattercell. So: If you want to know what the Stick sounds like, or whether Bernier is even riding it much lately, you’ll have to go see him perform in the heightened, intimate listening space of the Unison Arts and Learning Center in New Paltz.
Michael Bernier & special guests Mark Dziuba & Sara Jecko, Friday, October 11, 7 p.m., $25/$20, Unison Arts Center, 68 Mountain Rest Road, New Paltz; www.brownpapertickets.com/event/470874, https://michaelbernier.bandcamp.com.