Pete Thompson: Mastering the Rhythm of the Human Psyche
By Gabriel E Camero
Pete Thompson is the former drummer of Silverhead, a British rock band that ran from 1972 to 1974. They playfully explored the potential of glam rock and influenced the sleaze rock genre. In touring with the likes of Kiss, Deep Purple, and Nazareth, to name a few – Thompson established himself as a cornerstone in set, touring, and recording gigs for more musicians and performers than he can remember. One of the most notable was his work on Robert Plant’s Fate of Nations, which garnered gold and platinum albums. And, during eight years with guitarist and band leader Robin Trower, Thompson was awarded the National Association of Independent Distributors’ Best Rock Drummer Award for his work on “Passion.”
Thompson taught himself the drums when he was 19, learning a variety of styles. He showcased this versatility in his 2012 debut solo EP, Open Window, with distinct tonalities, primal beats and rhythms. Gently overlaying other instruments; swirling them in the mind; drifting similar threads in and out until they fade; like losing oneself in thought.
Thompson’s projects push basic theory, composition and technology. While Open Window focused more on the basics of beating drums, the 2015 EP Too Close to the Sun uses technology to showcase his musical mastery. The result is a scintillating and solid album that trucks from the first downbeat to the final rest.
The title track kicks off the album, setting the tone both lyrically and musically. The song starts like a sound check with a strumming guitar that stirs in drums, bass, and lead guitar on the first or fourth downbeat of every measure. This stress on one and four is solidified when the drums kick in hard and the composition’s main body takes form. Continuing his focus on drums, Thompson strongly keeps the beat that drives this song about the process and emotional experience of creating music. The chorus, “I can’t do nothin’ without ya,” seems to refer to the importance of each instrument, which is evident in the composition. While not a wall of sound, the audio tracks are still densely layered and steady, unless guitarist Rusty Burns is shredding on a smoky solo.
Thompson’s focus on support instruments is a running theme in the album. Most of the songs center around either the bass, drums, or synthesizer. In “Too Close to the Sun,” Thompson gives the bass the melody, moving the focus from the guitar to the usually supportive bass. The guitar then becomes more of a rhythm and harmony instrument, enhanced with frequent effects pedaling. He displays his technological savvy by utilizing the synthesizer. I don’t usually like the synthesizer, but I love how Thompson uses it and Shannon Day plays it.
For instance, on “Givin’ Up on Your Love,” Thompson and Day weave the emotions of commitment with a tropical ambience. This ambience is created with a strong bass, vibraphone, and synthesizer imitating steel drums – the guitar just adds flourishes and seagull sound effects. Thompson adds city textures like pea whistles, bustling bongos and a palm muted acoustic guitar reminiscent of a street musician. The chanted lyrics, “I ain’t givin’ up on your love,” and some la-la-las, add a persistent tribal sound. This sound adds to the processional feeling created by fading trumpets and pea whistles in the end.
In “A World Above,” written by Derek Holt, Thompson uses a scaled down instrumentation to capture the worshiping side of love. The song starts with a clean, pure, arpeggio followed by an earthy growling bass and percussion section. Ethereal chords from a synthesizer set to voice come in on top and persist throughout the song. The voice setting is my biggest synthesizer pet peeve, but I think it’s a crucially brilliant touch to this song. Thompson balances the treble and bass between the instruments distinctly, bringing out the baritone vocals. This separation of ranges creates a sense of hierarchy like the id, ego and super ego; or angels and men. The guitar, played by Rod Davies, starts in the baritone range and gets higher with each solo – reflecting an attempt at upward mobility in spirit or consciousness. The singing in the verses feel like a prayer and the chorus feels like a hymn. Thompson pulls the instruments out gradually until only the pure arpeggio remains.
Thompson uses a different minimalist approach in another Holt composition, “Easy in My Shoes.” The engineer starts with a hard edit that clips the track, making the musical phrases sound separately recorded as they come in and out, like in electronic music. Yet, as Thompson adds more tracks, they begin to mesh, and the small parts make a seamless whole. The separate parts become distinct in the end as they are stripped to the drums. This brings out the importance of each phrase and relates to the lyrics about a man realizing the elements that led him to peaceful contentment.
Thompson plays with technology again on “Invoke the Spirit-Song for Pam.” He uses a similar instrumentation to “A World Above,” but this time I feel like it blends spirit, biology and machine. The song starts with an ethereal synthesizer set to organ, then a heartbeat from the drums and a firing up of the synthesizer set to a steam-punk pan flute. Thompson plays the guitar conversationally, like he’s expressing the developing emotions or self-awareness of this new life form. All of this is wonderfully enhanced by the stereo movement of the tracks that puts the listener in the middle of this auditory experience. The song ends on the guitar and the synthesizer bouncing left and right, fading in the middle of a line, evoking eternity. Thompson ends the album on a sustained rest that leaves the listener ruminating on the work they just experienced.
Like a musical Daedalus, Thompson uses technological prowess to take small parts and create a surprisingly innovative whole. A close listening of Too Close to the Sun could expand and enhance one’s understanding of the work of making music. The album is so entertaining and cleverly structured, 45 minutes feels like 30, that it calls for a re-listen that won’t disappoint.
Together with Open Window, Too Close to the Sun rounds out Thompson’s solo pieces in a way that contrasts the different perspectives of life, delivering a sense of introspection and fulfillment to the human psyche. Thompson will be releasing these, as well as new music, in the coming year through RL Recordings. You can find his music collection at RLRecordings.com.