No one is arguing with Matt Stevens’ six-string credentials. The Fierce And The Dead man can and will do, frankly, unusual things to a guitar. However, this is not the first thing that strikes you about Archive. Instead it is the sound – and it’s not pleasant. Released to mark a full-stop on his 2006-2015 run of solo shows, it sees four rare studio cuts bundled with a 2014 live set. The problem with live acoustic recordings lies in the fact that even in the age of unlimited music, wireless power and smart watches that get grumpy when you skip leg day, no one has figured out how to make a plugged-in electro-acoustic sound good. This is just about palatable nestled in a full-band arrangement or with an accomplished performer like Stevens conjuring magic from a wooden box onstage before your very eyes, but over six solo instrumental live tracks it quickly chafes.
This is a great shame, because Stevens is a bit of a pioneer – a man capable of finding new territory on the most throughly-trampled instrumental path of all time. Songs like Burning Bandstands document his ability to manipulate a guitar and a looper into richly detailed and dynamically varied soundscapes, but noticeably lack the sonic depth of studio recordings. Meanwhile, an acoustic interpretation of Oxymoron – opener of Stevens’ popular 2014 solo album Lucid – sounds like an experiment that didn’t quite pan out, as loops jarringly tangle on top of each other.
It is not all bad news. The latin-tinged A Boy – balmily beautiful in its original setting – is reworked and takes on new life thanks to the razored live sound, evolving from something you’d hear drifting down the back streets of Granada into a dissonant crystalline structure. Similarly, opener Rusty’s glassy interlocking layers build like frost patterns, sprouting intriguing new offshoots. Studio rarities Blue Filter and Peccadillo are equally enthralling, particularly in the twisted Tex-Mex guitar meets Radiohead electronica of the latter, but sadly placing these bass-y cuts next to the live work jarringly highlights the difference in quality.
All of the above would have been better placed in a more considered compilation – an ‘essential’ collection with a few live highlights and/or a separate studio rarities EP would have been a more fitting tribute to mark the hiatus of Stevens’ excellent solo work. As it stands, it feels like the album doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its name. Less an archive, more ‘the rest of it’.