Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


Chris Sharkey


by Ian Mann

July 13, 2021


There’s a real sense of going on a journey, the music subtly evolving, the electronic sounds being sculpted in real time into genuinely impressive sonic edifices.

Chris Sharkey


(Not Applicable NOTCD058)

Chris Sharkey – electric guitar, electronics

Guitarist, composer,  improviser, producer and educator Chris Sharkey is a musician from the North East of England who studied at Leeds College of Music and remains based in that city, while still retaining close ties with his native North East.

He first came to my attention through his work with the ‘punk jazz’ ensemble trio VD, alongside alto saxophonist Christophe de Bezenac and drummer Chris Bussey. This line up produced the albums “Fill It Up With Ghosts” and “Maze” and the EP “X” and the group also established a reputation as a dynamic live act.  I still recall with pleasure a particularly incendiary performance at the 2010 Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Sharkey was also a member of the last edition of Acoustic Ladyland, appearing on the album “Living With A Tiger”. 

More recently he has been part of the electro-jazz trio Shiver, alongside bassist Andy Champion and drummer Joost Hendrickx and has become a member of the Mercury nominated Roller Trio, transforming that band’s sound and making a substantial contribution to that group’s 2018 album “New Devices”.

Other bands and individuals with whom he has performed include drummer Charles Hayward, saxophonist Jack Wyllie (of Portico Quartet) and the bands Anton Eger’s AE, Joshua Blackmore’s SiZE and The Geordie Approach.

Sharkey’s fascination with sound and with music technology has also seen him emerge as an in demand producer, working with vocalist Zoe Gilby, drummer Seb Rochford, pianist Matthew Bourne and the bands ACV, J Frisco and World ServiceProject among many others.

“Presets”, a two CD set, represents his first wholly solo album, although there have been a number of collaborative releases, including two duo recordings with drummer Mark Sanders. Other ventures have included trios with keyboard player Pat Thomas and Roller Trio drummer Luke Reddin-Williams and with pianist Matthew Bourne and Shiver drummer Joost Hendrickx. A further recording features him with bassist Michael Bardon and drummer Paul Hession. Details of all these recordings, plus others, can be found at Sharkey’s Bandcamp page;

Perhaps surprisingly “Presets” is not a direct product of lockdown, although I suspect that it was probably completed during the pandemic. In truth these recordings were laid down as long ago as 2015, eleven freely improvised pieces created using only an electric guitar and associated “hardware”.

“Presets” was recorded “as it happened” to one stereo track, with no additional processing post-performance.

Sharkey describes his creative process and the inspirations behind it as follows;
“I had been touring and travelling a lot. Lots of car journeys on the M1, driving between shows in Europe. Long waits in airports. The occasional long haul flight to play further afield. Throughout this period my relationship to music changed. I found that listening to songs or short pieces would leave me frustrated. I’d been listening a lot to Actress, particularly ‘Ghettoville’ and ‘Hazyville’, which really worked for me on the road. I wanted a music that develops slowly over time, drawing you in, making you forget about the clock. Music that has so much grain and texture that you could almost pick it up and turn it around in your hand, examining it from all sides, like a physical object. Music that resembles something you might see out of the window of a plane, high above the clouds, a meteorological event or a storm on distant mountains as seen from the back seat of a car. So when I finally stopped moving I sat down and plugged some things in – my guitar, a computer, an interface, a couple of speakers and a decade’s worth of pedals and other stuff I’d accumulated over the years to mess with my guitar – and started playing. Over two months I recorded hours and hours of music, experimenting with different combinations of things in different orders. The only constants were;.
1. I prepared no musical ideas and just improvised when I hit the record button, simply responding to whatever the first sound was and developing it from there.
2. I paid no attention to the time and tried to remain as patient and focussed as possible.
3. I recorded to one stereo track and did no additional processing once the music was recorded.”

He continues;
“As the process continued I would select my favourite parts and create playlists, just for myself. By the end I had over four hours of music that lived on my phone, and whenever I travelled I would listen. Over the course of the next five years of touring, travelling and listening I slowly whittled it down to what you hear on ‘Presets’.”

Influences that have been cited include Actress, Burial, Steve Reich and fellow guitar experimenters Christian Fennesz, Eivind Aarset and Oren Ambarchi. I was also reminded very much of the Norwegian experimental guitarist Stian Westerhus, who I recall giving a stunning solo performance at the 2011 Cheltenham Jazz Festival.

Released on the celebrated experimental imprint Not Applicable the eleven pieces that comprise “Presets” are split over the course of two discs and cover a remarkable range of sounds and moods. Although the electric guitar is at the heart of the music its sound is transformed by Sharkey and his ‘hardware’ to create an astonishing series of colours and textures.

Opener “Blue Cloud, Red Fog” swirls in appropriately ominous fashion, incorporating the sounds of drones, pulses and glitches, the atmospherics sometimes punctured by sudden stabs of sound, approximating the sound of thunderclaps perhaps. Although guitar generated some of the sounds are distinctly keyboard like, a church organ here, or a synthesiser there. As Sharkey has suggested this is music that draws you in and envelops you, with no bass or drums there is little sense of regular or linear development and you can just absorb yourself in the sounds of colour and texture, the “grain” as Sharkey describes it.

“The Sharecropper’s Daughter” takes the listener in even deeper, an eighteen minute improvisation that embraces shimmering soundwashes, towering cathedral like layers of sound, threatening drones, harsh electronic crackling and semi-percussive ticks and rustles. It evolves slowly, almost glacier like, sometimes sounding like signals from a distant galaxy, at other times seeming as if it is being generated from deep within the earth’s core. Again absorption is the key as the listener is drawn in, “forgetting about the clock”, as Sharkey has mentioned. Lou Reed’s infamous “Metal Machine Music” album has been mentioned as an influence and this is particularly apparent here as Sharkey’s piece takes on an uncompromising, but strangely compelling, life of its own.

I’m surprised that the ambient music of Brian Eno (not to mention his collaborations with King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp) hasn’t been mentioned as an influence. The brief “Falloodeh With Flake” is decidedly ‘Eno-esque’ and much of the philosophy behind “Presets” seems to be a 21st century updating of some of Eno’s ideas. And pre-pandemic it’s undeniable that we all needed to slow down and take a look around us. If it’s done nothing else Covid has surely helped to put more listeners onto Sharkey’s wavelength.

Sharkey’s titles, almost certainly bestowed later, are often highly descriptive. There a towering sense of religiosity about “Evangelist (Salvation History)” with its grandiose organ style drones, celestial, choir like soundwashes and church bell like resonations.

The final piece on the first disc is “Detained At The Border”, a title possibly informed by personal experience – or maybe a prediction of what lies ahead for travelling British musicians Post Brexit.
The music evokes some kind of future dystopia, possibly in deep space, a combination of drifting, ambient textures with subtle, but threatening, electronic pulses.

Disc Two commences with “Blowup”, a combination of arpeggiated pulses and swirling synth like textures as Reich’s minimalism meets the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

“Young Brothers” evokes an urban dystopia, shades here of Burial, and I’m also reminded of the music of Seb Rochford’s latest project, the trio Pulled By Magnets.

That sense of alienation and a general sense of eeriness continues on the lengthy “Torpid Metacarpals”, with its high pitched vocalised drones, murky electronic pulses and increasingly immersive soundwashes.

“Watt, Law and Order” then combines glitch and crackle with feathery organ like motifs and an underlying bass like rumble.

“Puget Sound Backlash” borrows from minimalism with its undulating pulses, and also harks back to the earlier “Evangelist” with its organ style drones and church bell like timbres.

Finally we hear “Scorpion Bowl”, at over thirteen minutes in length the last of the album’s great improvised epics. It perhaps epitomises the album as a whole, evolving slowly and organically, embracing a wide and fascinating range of sounds, the technology being utilised purely in support of the music and in the creation of an atmosphere. Sharkey can be a ferocious guitarist and shred it with the best of them, but there’s no sense of ego here, or the use of technique for its own sake. Instead there’s a real sense of going on a journey, deep into inner or outer space – it doesn’t really matter which -  the music subtly evolving, the electronic sounds being sculpted in real time into genuinely impressive sonic edifices. It rarely sounds like a guitar, this is pure electronica with the sounds skilfully processed in real time to create something unique.

“Presets” has received universally favourable reviews, although most writers have merely recounted Sharkey’s motivations and techniques rather than trying to summarise the music. Indeed it’s very difficult music to describe, with no formal structure and with no discernible solos in the jazz sense the interpretation is left very much within the ears and mind of the listener.

I suspect that I’m the only writer to even attempt a track by track analysis and I hope that my words manage to do some justice to this extraordinary music.

At some eighty five minutes playing time this double CD represents a pretty challenging listen from end to end and I appreciate that some listeners just won’t get it at all. However what most writers have agreed on is that it’s a truly impressive piece of work and that it’s best to surrender to Sharkey’s intentions and surrender yourself totally to the music, listening deeply and exploring its rich inner contours and constantly evolving sonic details, taking it all nice and slowly.

“Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream” as somebody famously once said.

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