Two years in the making, Places draws on evocative landscapes ranging from a mist-shrouded inlet to a wind-swept mountain peak to create an aural journal of guitarist Mark Vickness’ travels. On a straightforward level, it’s a deeply personal, family-centered project— Vickness’ wife and two children contribute photos and poetry to the CD’s liner notes, and the guitarist’s deceased adoptive mother receives a heartfelt tribute with a shimmering rendition of Elisha Hoffman’s spiritual “I Must Tell Jesus.” But Vickness’ uncanny ability to evoke the complex emotions linked to these times and places transcends the specific and catapults his travelogue into the universal.
As one half of the acoustic jazz-fusion duo Glass House, Vickness has previously released three albums and one EP, but Places marks his solo debut. The fingerstylist makes the most of this opportunity to showcase the limitless sounds and textures that can be achieved primarily with his custom Michael Greenfield steel-string guitars. The exceptions to Vickness’ one-guitar-per-tune rule are his tumbling tabla run on “Flight of the Rays,” the squadron of strings—lowing cello, swooning viola, and cross-stitch violin—that knit the sinuous strands of the nine-minute “Wonder Lake Suite” into a restless coda, and the spectral looped and/or overdubbed textures that thread throughout the album.
“A Thousand Islands,” named for the lake in central California where Vickness proposed to his wife, weaves a tapestry of buzzing frets, pinging harmonics, and syncopated guitar-top taps that nod to Michael Hedges’ playing style. But moments later, the same composition dives into a warren of Baroque serpentine passages that recall the picking of Andrés Segovia disciple Christopher Parkening.
Playing a custom Matt Mustapick guitar, Vickness mimics the sympathetic resonance strings heard on an Indian sarod on the galloping and sprightly “Wind River.” A double-necked Ovation, with six strings on one neck and 12 on the other, produces sonar-like harmonics and wavering zither-like tintinnabulations on “Flight of the Rays,” a snapshot of manta rays Vickness saw skimming gracefully through the sea off the coast of Hawaii.
The jagged Alaskan coastline emerges from a fog bank on “Prince William Sound,” where slipknot picking threads like a gamelan through percussive swipes and chugging clockwork tapping that imitates a ship’s engine. A silvery glissando parts like a sheer waterfall to reveal resonating countermelodies and insistent squawking strums on “Bishop Pass.”
“New York City,” named after the urban hub frequented by Long Island native Vickness, is depicted as a peripatetic subway ride from neighborhood to borough and back. Here Vickness’ twanging, radiating chords and springy, hammered dulcimer-like taps suggest a train echoing in tunnels and clattering across trestles. The Big Apple is revisited in “NYC 2.0,” which utilizes the same tunings and material as the previous composition for a grimier and funkier instrumental. As arpeggiated picking on the upper strings keeps pace with a slinky backbeat on the lower, Vickness spins airy and chiming textures reminiscent of the multilayered ghost drones employed by the Velvet Underground.
A varied and virtuosic “photo album” of remote, gritty, and mystical locales, Places traces a map of Vickness’ emotional life, while sketching the subtle and winding pathways creativity takes on its way to fruition.
This article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.