If you think that title of this 12-disc boxed set rounding up the solo albums from 1982 – 2003 is mere hyperbole then you’d be wrong. With players as diverse as Eddie Van Halen, Carlos Santana, Frank Zappa, Pat Metheny, John McLaughlin, Joe Satriani and Tom Morello speaking his name in reverential tones, Bradford-born Holdsworth is truly special. While the spiralling escape velocity of his runs is breathtaking, the real mind-blowing quality to his work that has the luminaries of the guitar world picking up their jaws from the floor isn’t his speed but the harmonic construction within Holdsworth’s soloing and compositions. His dextrous command remains innovative with most left sprawled in his wake trying to figure out what just happened.
While progressive music fans will know him through Soft Machine, Bill Bruford, Tempest, UK, Gong and Tony Williams’ Lifetime, his own catalogue has tended to mix‘n’match between jazzy elan; 1996’s None Too Soon and fusion-friendly furrows and 1993’s Hard Hat Area being typical. That he has as many releases as this is not something to take for granted. Holdsworth has been notorious in his exacting, self-editing rigour, where even the vaguest hint of anything regarded by him as substandard is binned. It’s a pity because not only has it made his progress slower than it might otherwise have been, his rejects are better than most other people’s career-best takes.
Joined by a variety of empathetic players, including explosive drumming from both Chad Wackerman and Gary Husband and UK jazz veteran Gordon Beck on piano, Holdsworth albums are always going to be classy affairs, with 2000’s The Sixteen Men Of Tain being one of his most incisive of this collection both as player and composer.
Whether Holdsworth’s extensive use of guitar synth technology is a good thing will depend on your taste. As with other exponents, including McLaughlin, Metheny or Fripp, it works best and to most telling effect, when used sparingly. This isn’t a viewpoint especially Holdsworth shares. His fascination in getting his native instrument to emulate keyboards, strings, brass and even, God forbid, a herniated pan-pipe on 2001’s Flat Tire: Music For A Non-Existent Movie, and elsewhere, sounds like the tail wagging the dog.
Such matters of individual preference aside, there’s no getting away from the fact the bulk of his work represents an astonishingly original talent at work. If the 12-disc set is more Holdsworth than you’d like then the two-disc compilation, Eidolon is a very useful snapshot of highlights chosen by the man himself.