When coming up in experimental noise-drone trio Emeralds, guitarist Mark McGuire's spectral leads and heavily treated tonal clusters added both menace and resolution to his analog synth-playing counterparts. Well before leaving the band in 2013 (a few weeks before the remaining members decided to break up rather than carry on as a duo), McGuire was prolific as a solo artist, releasing compositions that ranged from hissy tapes of rough cosmic guitar meditations to more refined, nearly new age-leaning acoustic fare. Along the Way represents the most ambitious material from McGuire to date, including deeper production and a plethora of various instruments that never made it into the laser-focused explorations of solo guitar that made up previous albums. While not struggling to present itself as some overwrought "master statement," an unmistakable amount of well-considered design went into its epic hour-plus running length. Broken into four parts that presumably follow a similar narrative to a written story included in the liner notes, the individual segments of various suites run together in a similar fashion to the shape-shifting progressions of McGuire's guitar work, never lingering too long on one sound or feeling before morphing into something new. What's different here is the density of sound, created by layer upon layer of electronics, samples, drum machines, and organic instruments like piano and mandolin. All largely foreign to McGuire's sound, compositions like the tense "War on Consciousness" and the gloriously orchestrated trifecta pieces that begin the album sound like fully realized versions, as if suddenly, after years of standing alone with a guitar and racks of pedals, a curtain was pulled back and McGuire was suddenly aided by a full orchestra of sounds once absent in his songs. Likewise, more vocals make their way onto the album than before, though they are still relatively muted and textural. The production is crisp, but there's an inherent softness to even the most jarring moments on the album. At times, the wider-lensed instrumentation can edge McGuire away from his noise/Krautrock-addled roots into something more closely resembling contemporary new age or decidedly adult modern creative guitarists like Bill Frisell. However, just when things teeter on sleepy, precious, or predictable, it's never too long before McGuire introduces a thick layer of distortion or some other unexpected sound to reroute the songs toward more interesting places. While Along the Way suggests an incredible amount of development in a short period of time, and its expanded instrumentation opens new doors, the same signature guitar playing and compositional elements that embodied McGuire's earliest noise tapes are at the heart of every song. It's an incredible feat for an artist to make something so enormous and unfolding without losing himself in the process, but McGuire has done just that, and as a result has turned in his most detailed and soul-searching work.
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AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas