Despite often being judged by the ability to melt faces with nothing other than a lightning-like flurry of notes, there’s far more to being a great guitar player than playing fast. Speed kills, sure, but it’s not everything. Great guitar players should also have mastered melody, nuance, timbre and tone. Thus, thanks to his musical contributions on his latest album, “Benign Penny”, we discover that instrumental indie-rock musician, better known as Sugar Loaf Walker, is one such guitarist. In fact, he is a great guitar player.
Sugar Loaf Walker is the solo project of artist, Vivek Ayer. The project was born in the spring of 2009. Writing music in Bethnal Green in London’s East End, he was looking to create an instrumental guitar sound, captured in melodies inspired London’s sprawling urban landscape, the changeable British weather set the tone, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, as well as various conspiracy theories. Over the coming months Vivek collaborated with his brother Arjun who provided the bass guitar tracks, which was mixed with some rudimentary drum track.
After selecting some tracks Vivek went about naming the collection, which was inspired by his my mother-in-law Penny’s charming car license plate B9 PNY. He named the demo “Benign Penny”, and shared the CDs with family and friends. Fast forward to 2020 and the chaos of the pandemic gave way to the inertia of lockdown. Now living in Amman, Jordan, Vivek Ayer rediscovered the demos while searching on his hard disk. The melodies of the songs inspired him to bring back Sugar Loaf Walker and finish the album.
With the bass work on all the songs already recorded previously, by Vivek’s bother Arjun Raghuraman, the issue of the rudimentary drum tracks was solved through collaboration with Vinay Ramakrishan, an excellent session drummer based in Chennai, Vivek’s hometown in India. The album also features drummer Jake Naugle, who appears on the track “Strange Land”. The tracks were then remixed by Kevin Carafa, a sound engineer based out of Portland, USA.
In the meantime, the album title, “Benign Penny” has also come to take on a deeper meaning for Vivek Ayer. His mother-in-law passed in 2010, while his daughter, born in 2015, inherited the name Penny, keeping her grandmother’s spirit alive. The album cover artwork actually features a picture of Vivek’s daughter and the Fender Stratocaster which dominates the record.
I went into my listening session looking for, and expecting, hard-hitting speed-demon tracks. What I found was something much greater, and more inspiring. “Benign Penny” isn’t your typical virtuoso guitar player album, in that, throughout the work, Vivek Ayer aka Sugar Loaf Walker demonstrates his sensitive musical chops while always putting the song first; flash is never substituted for substance.
Right from the opening track, “The Late Summer”, the album features a slew of well-constructed tracks that swing and shuffle with sublime melodies, making for an uplifting listening experience. Instead of wildly riffing and shredding, Sugar Loaf Walker’s guitar simply replaces any would-be lead vocalist and plays like a voice singing lyrics, with the notes substituting the words. It speaks to what an instrumental guitar album can be, when you strip away all the egoism and melodrama.
Moving forward, you encounter standouts like the slower “Capers”, the impacting “Hip Pop”, the bluesy “Pink House”, or the reggae bounce of “Last Chance”, and the rhythmic delights of “Hitchhiking” and the rolling swing of “Strange Land”. Not to mention the urgent drive of “Return To Magenta” and the pristine chime of “The Flying Disc”. All throughout, the production quality on this album is as sweet as Sugar Loaf Walker’s tone and guitar licks.
The energy in the music and nuances in the melodies, not only make the album simply mesmerizing, but also absolutely entertaining. The composition of the music features good weightage on all the instruments and everything seems to be superbly performed here. The album is the epitome of musical finesse. Overall, “Benign Penny” captures every reason why anyone would love Sugar Loaf Walker and his brand of instrumental indie-rock.