Album review: Pat Metheny – Secret Story

Maximum maximalist Metheny.

Genre: Jazz fusion/world fusion/contemporary classical
Country: United States
Release date: July 1992
Label: Geffen Records
Format: 12” vinyl
Catalog number: GEF 24468

Pat Metheny – guitars, bass, keyboards, sitar, electronics, composition, arrangement
Mark Ledford – vocals
Akiko Yano – vocals
Steve Rodby – bass
Will Lee – bass
Anthony Jackson – bass
Lyle Mays – keyboards
Charlie Haden – bass
Steve Ferrone – drums
Sammy Merendino – drums
Paul Wertico – drums
Armando Marçal – percussion
Nana Vasconcelos – percussion
Danny Gottlieb – percussion
Gil Goldstein – accordion
Ryan Kisor – trumpet and flugelhorn
Mike Metheny – trumpet and flugelhorn
Michael Mossman – trumpet and flugelhorn
David Bargeron – trombone, tuba
Tom Malone – trombone
Dave Taylor – bass trombone
John Clark – French horn
Andy Findon – flute
Toots Thielemans – harmonica
Skaila Kanga – harp
The Choir of the Cambodian Royal Palace – choir
The Pinpeat Orchestra of the Cambodian Royal Ballet – orchestra
The London Orchestra – orchestra


Above the Treetops



Facing West 



Cathedral in a Suitcase



Finding and Believing



The Longest Summer






Rain River



Always and Forever



See the World



As a Flower Blossoms (I am Running to You)






The Truth Will Always Be



Tell Her You Saw Me



Not to be Forgotten (Our Final Hour)


Total running time:


A popular scientific hypothesis about dreams is that they are essentially the brain’s housekeeping, the various memories, fragments, and bizarre happenings drawn from all the bric-a-brac being pulled out and rearranged and metaphorically dusted off. While, like most such metaphors, it is misleadingly simple, it keeps coming back to me when I listen to Secret Story. The way it moves from scene to scene, joined by association; the incredible array of sounds and textures and melodic lines multiplied almost without limit; one might even call it psychedelic in the sense of evoking the feeling of going “beyond” everyday waking consciousness, though it sounds nothing like Syd Barrett. Seemingly everything Metheny had ever played or even heard up to that point ended up in Secret Story somewhere; if his early ECM records were like a small aperture into Metheny’s mental world, this is like a panoramic window, seemingly taking in everything, building up in layers to create an immense musical universe worthy of a Mahler symphony, and with almost as many moving parts.

Metheny started out on the other end of the spectrum, as a typically austere ECM Records noodler making products typical of ECM’s noodle factory (dry, starchy, and beloved by boring people), but he really found his mojo with increasingly expansive, structured jazz-rock/classical/Brazilian/world/kitchen sink fusion compositions starting with First Circle and gradually intensifying over the course of the 1980s, his eponymous Pat Metheny Group expanding to six members and an enormous panoply of instruments, with nearly every member of the band wearing multiple hats. However, instead of assaulting you with that complexity, Pat Metheny has a canny way of constructing music that has a slick, monolithic, ear-candy surface that parts when you listen closely to reveal a seemingly endless fractal pattern of details and structures. Unfortunately many people indoctrinated with received wisdom about what specific genres of music “should” sound like often hear Metheny’s refined (perhaps over-refined) Gibson ES-175 tone and just file him under “easy listening” for aesthetics alone.

Secret Story is harder to pigeonhole that way just by virtue of its sheer scope. While it sounds like and is largely written as a continuation of the cycle of Pat Metheny Group albums from First Circle through Letter from Home, it pushes the style of those albums to its absolute limits. Those albums were full of lush sounds and dense arrangements, but were still built around the core six-person band, its strengths and its limitations. Secret Story just keeps going where the Pat Metheny Group would run out of hands, building up layer upon layer of sonic tapestry, exploring an enormous variety of instruments and sounds. It is not, however, a band like the Group, but a collection of sidemen that change from song to song, and it seems like half the musicians Metheny ever played with are on here—at least 25 of them, not counting the two orchestras and classical Cambodian choir. The European classical influences that were subtle on the ‘80s Group albums are overt here, and towards the end the album moves almost completely into a European idiom. As a classical composer, Metheny is fairly rudimentary compared to his abilities in jazz, and he resorts to jazz techniques as he builds up from a simple base of a small string ensemble embiggened with tastefully subtle synthesizer work, towards the respective climaxes of the pieces, but there are no seams, no spots where the two musical worlds grind against each other, and that, more than his (impressive) guitar skill or his music theory, was and, despite him having disbanded the Pat Metheny Group and gone minimalist and conservative like everybody else years ago, was and still is his greatest talent, his ability not just to play “fusion”, but to do it.

Fusion is a word that scares traditional critics, because the brute fact of its existence, and its early success, threatened the most sacred tenet of the academic art world—the distinction between “serious” and “light” music that had held since the days of troubadours. Fusion not only breaks but actively negates this distinction, using the musical vocabularies of styles deemed beneath capital-A Art in a more academic way, reconciling things which the elite wish to keep opposed. Rock music, of course, is the most obvious thing introduced into jazz through fusion, but almost anything can end up as raw material for fusion’s process for synthesis. Which, to the professional music intelligentsia, makes almost any non-traditional sound or musical idea in jazz suspect. This is very unfortunate indeed for jazz, itself born as a fusion of Afro-diasporic musical traditions (themselves the result of multiple generations of fusions that have largely gone unrecorded by written history) with European music’s incredibly powerful system of functional harmony. The addition of electric instruments and techniques from rock, funk, and soul music was a natural and obvious continuation of jazz’s spirit; an entire new musical language to experiment with, whether by itself or in conjunction with the familiar acoustic instruments, and a huge body of existing electric music to reinterpret and build on.

Like the Pat Metheny Group records also released on Geffen, Secret Story sounds absolutely fantastic, whether in digital or on the very rare and expensive vinyl edition. It has a typically pre-grunge late ‘80s/early ‘90s sound with quite a bit of reverb, but the reverb is kept well in hand and never allowed to engulf the instrumentation like on many other albums from the period with a similar production aesthetic. Every piece has a different lineup and instrumentation, so at times it almost feels like each one is a production unto itself, but not to the extent of disrupting the album’s conceptual, musical, and sonic unity. Even more impressively, Metheny assembled a cut-down ensemble of nine musicians and played Secret Story live on tour while keeping its multilayered sonic depth almost completely intact, as recorded in the Secret Story Live VHS released a year later.

Structurally, Secret Story can be roughly divided into three acts, with tracks 1-4, 5-9, and 10-14 each forming their own cycles within the broader progression of the album. The first act is the most varied and energetic, at times resembling progressive rock as much as it does jazz. After the prologue “Above the Treetops”, a derivation of a traditional Cambodian classical piece employing classical Cambodian performers that largely serves just to set up the cozy but meditative mood that pervades this album, “Facing West” is familiar territory for Pat Metheny fans, and would fit right in on Letter from Home alongside “Have You Heard” and “Beat 70”, enough so that a first-time listener might be forgiven for wondering if he had stooped to simply repeating himself. But that illusion is dispelled with the following “Cathedral in a Suitcase”, a symphonic prog song that feels like Yes’ “And You and I” by way of Steve Reich, crammed into only four and a half minutes. Little snatches of melody drift in and out under the underlying synth and percussion loop, until they assemble and burst forth from the minimalist base of the song in a massive Romantic climax before dissolving into the flow again, brilliantly combining two different ways of approaching European-style composition that would on the surface appear to be total opposites.

However, the highlight of this part of the album, perhaps even the entire album, is “Finding and Believing”, which again takes after a prog rock structure—but this time to a full ten minutes, a real multi-part epic rather than a capsule epic, with a long, reflective classical-inspired intermission bookended by two faster sections with a heavy Brazilian influence with their complex layering of South American percussion and minimal drumming, and Mark Ledford’s incredibly agile wordless vocals, zipping through undulating, crowded vocal lines with coloratura-like deftness, and hitting high notes worthy of Robert Plant or Geoff Tate. Though many of the themes from the early part of the piece are recapitulated later, they are never simply repeated verbatim, adding an extra sense of surprise and “plot” when a theme comes back. Like most good prog epics, listening to “Finding and Believing” feels almost like a long journey, progressing through a variety of moods and scenes but always with a sense of building towards a conclusion, not just meandering in the woods and going nowhere.

The second third of the album is mostly composed of ballads and sags a bit, with “The Longest Summer” feeling very long indeed without much interesting going on, and “Sunlight” being a rarity for Metheny but not a welcome one—a full-blown smooth jazz elevator jingle, a very limited selection of simplistic sing-songy melodies with a very basic drum accompaniment. However, this section has one standout in “Rain River”, a Romantic-style tone painting, the river’s course laid down by the liquid pulse of Steve Rodby’s upright bass against a taut 16th note rhythm from cymbals and shakers. One thing that Metheny had been perfecting with the Group for several years was blending dissimilar instruments together, and on here keys, winds, and Metheny’s guitar meld together into a quite unearthly, multilayered lead sound for one of the piece’s principal melodies. It’s just a sonically rich piece in general, swirling with sitar and keys and little percussion ornaments, and harmonies so thick it almost seems one could swim in them, mixed well enough for the listener to hear all of those layers clearly and peel them apart in their head.

Towards the end of the album, after the end of the string of jazz ballads, the music from “As a Flower Blossoms (I am Running to You)” to the end of the record shifts gears again, and dives headfirst into Romantic classical and European folk music. The aforementioned “As a Flower Blossoms” is more of a transition than a fully-realized composition, a curious little electronic number full of synth sounds and odd, high-pitched chirps, with reverb-veiled vocals from Akiko Yano hovering at the edge of conscious perceptions, so the real start is “Antonia”, whose primary musical ideas feel like they could have come from somewhere in the Czechia/Poland/Slovakia reason, with its rubato accordion (fake, played on synth by Metheny himself; the live version has Gil Goldstein on the real thing). However, the middle section is a Pat Metheny Group-style improv solo section, and while “Antonia” has a quite good Pat Metheny solo, its solo is also a quite “typical” Pat Metheny solo (although the very end of the section, with the electric guitar fading seamlessly into the synth-pad backdrop sounds a little like contemporary Dream Theater at their most melodic), and its familiarity cheapens this otherwise beautiful piece just a little bit.

“The Truth Will Always Be” is another epic, counterbalancing “Finding and Believing” from earlier in the album, but is less showy and demonstrative than that song was. It ditches jazz almost entirely, going all-in on Romanticism for the first two thirds, a lonely brass theme and a mildly martial rhythm delivered with vibes and a snare drum, but gradually adds layers of strings, synth, and winds, swelling and growing more complex in a classic example of Lisztian thematic development, before Pat Metheny comes in and rocks the fuck out, bursting into a loud, violent hard rock solo full of shredding runs and long, squealing notes, while the martial rhythm changes to the first straight-up rock backbeat on the entire album. Unfortunately, Metheny uses his synth guitar instead of a solid-body amplified to within an inch of his life, so the hard edge that makes the best rock solos so moving is sanded off by this too-smooth, too-clean synthesized tone.

In general, the biggest weakness of Metheny’s music has always been that lack of hard edges; except for Zero Tolerance for Silence (which was more or less a single hard edge cutting you for 45 minutes straight), he has never really gone for astringent sounds or tempestuous moods. His blues especially fall a bit flat, because there’s nothing really in his universe to feel blue about, no real burning passions (except music, which is fine in itself, but shouldn’t there be an end that the music pursues, other than its sheer existence?), nothing that’s not under control. He might surprise you, but he’ll never shock you; he’s too reserved and emotionally monopolar for that. His music is beautiful when you’re in the right mood, but becomes quite unrelatable when you’re not in that mood, and it makes him a lesser artist than the ‘70s electric popular-art music his work is descended from. That said, by 1992, most of those artists had long lost their touch or outright sold their souls for musical survival, and against the likes of bloodless, insipid artists like Kenny G. and T-Square, he had few rivals.

Secret Story, aside from a couple of live releases from 1993 (one the abridged live VHS of Secret Story itself, another a Group live album titled The Road to You), was the end of the line for the classic lush Metheny style. Starting with We Live Here, his music started shifting more towards a combination of traditional acoustic jazz arrangements with some electronic garnishes, and parts ways with anything I find appealing (though The Way Up has its moments). The expense of a vinyl copy of this record makes it virtually impossible to justify buying it on LP unless you’re a maniacal Pat Metheny superfan, but it still sounds lovely in digital. I recommend the original version; the later remaster adds some quite boring outtakes that deserved their place in a dusty studio archive. Take it as it was originally meant to be heard, in its original mix (available on Spotify if you don’t want to buy a used CD), all the way through, start to finish. A secret story, of a dying art.

Rating: 89%

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