In 2014, guitarist Matteo Palmer established himself as one of Vermont's most promising young artists with his debut album, Out of Nothing. In addition to nearly peerless technical chops, Palmer showcased sublime sensibilities and a musical sensitivity well beyond his then-17 years. The kid wasn't simply a prodigious player — though he certainly was and is that. He was an artist, and nearly fully formed.
If Palmer had a weakness, it might have been that his compositions, while well crafted, remained too rooted in the works of his heroes, contemporary instrumental guitarists such as Alex de Grassi and Windham Hill Records founder Will Ackerman. Hero worship is a forgivable transgression for any young artist. That's doubly true in this case, given that Ackerman has served as Palmer's mentor since the latter was a sophomore at Vergennes Union High School.
On Embers, Palmer's recently released second album, the young guitarist has begun to transcend his formative influences. Ackerman's stamp remains, but it's now more a gentle imprint. Palmer's compositions sing with unique creativity and personality.
"Northern Hemisphere" is serene and contemplative, suffused with a sense of awe. Palmer coaxes pure, resonant tones that shimmer like the aurora borealis.
"None Shall Be Afraid" opens on a moody passage that imparts a sense of growing dread, lingering on a final note that hangs ominously. But then Palmer unfurls a bright, nimble melody that washes away the preceding anxiety. Ackerman would be the first to tell you that sometimes the best notes are the ones you don't play. Palmer's sense of space and how to use it suggest he's taken that lesson to heart.
"Embers Part 1" and "Embers Part 2" form the title couplet. At a combined 10 minutes, the twin compositions smolder with low heat — cranked up a tad on the latter track by the rare presence of electric guitar.
The album is a collaborative work. Unlike Palmer's debut, it features guest players, including Tom Eaton on piano, Eugene Friesen on cello and Charlie Bisharat on violin. Eaton and Ackerman engineered and coproduced with Palmer at Ackerman's Imaginary Road Studios. Eaton also mastered the record.
But at its core, Embers is an extension of Palmer himself. Tracks such as the elegiac "Harry & Hermione" and the playful "El Guapo" ring with Palmer's personality. "Southern Hemisphere" takes the introspective tone of the opening cut and flips it upside down in increasingly urgent lines. "Whitecaps" closes the album with turbulent fluidity.
In a 2014 story in Seven Days, Ackerman said of Palmer, "The kid has an almost frightening ability to find the emotion in his music." What might be truly frightening is that not only can Palmer find that emotion, he's learned to express it like never before.
Embers by Matteo Palmer is available at matteopalmermusic.com. Palmer plays an album-release show at the Mt. Philo Inn in Charlotte on Saturday, June 25.