Sex jokes and rock ‘n’ roll: looking back at Erotic Cakes by Guthrie Govan

Courtesy of Vladivostok via Flickr

If I were to tell you to listen to the album Erotic Cakes by guitar virtuoso Guthrie Govan, you might reply, “What the hell is that?” or “I don’t know who that is.” At that point, I would do my best impression of Jerry Seinfeld in The Bee Movie: “You like jazz?” Whether or not you do is irrelevant; I’ll still tell you to listen to the album.

Now I should preface this by saying that you have not been living under a rock if you’ve never heard of Guthrie Govan. His name is obscure and his music ostensibly niche. On top of that, the album isn’t even new—it was released in 2006. So why bother? 

Considered by many to be the “scariest guitarist alive” due to his jaw-dropping talent, Guthrie Govan’s ascension to the rank of guitar god was initially a Sisphyian task for him. Born in England in 1971, he first gained the guitar world’s attention in 1993, when the U.K. publication Guitarist named him “Guitarist of the Year” for his original composition, “Wonderful Slippery Thing.” From there, after turning down a record deal from Shrapnel Records due to his weariness of the uber-technical guitar style the label helped pioneer, Govan began working for numerous guitar magazines, transcribing popular songs and writing articles about developing technique. He recorded video lessons for then-burgeoning guitar websites like LickLibrary, taught at various music schools both in Britain and around the globe and worked as a session musician before a stint as the lead guitarist for the progressive rock band Asia. He has since gone on to work and record with big name composers and producers like Hans Zimmer and Steven Wilson, as well as forming the critically-acclaimed, genre-defying power trio, the Aristocrats. But it was during his time with Asia that Govan recorded and released Erotic Cakes, his only solo album to date. 

To pigeonhole the music on Erotic Cakes into one genre like “instrumental rock” or “jazz fusion” would be a disservice to Govan’s talents. Although jazz serves as the framework for Govan’s explorations, throughout the album he cherrypicks the best elements of a dazzling array of genres, from progressive rock and metal to blues, funk, soul and even country. The album begins with the song “Waves,” a mid-paced hard-rocking jam that serves as the perfect introduction to Govan’s outrageous style. With its undulating melody, catchy chord progressions and multiple dynamic shifts, the song is not only a work of art, but it also gives us a heaping spoonful of Govan’s dizzying technique. The title track follows, beginning with arguably the heaviest riff on the record. Here we see Govan’s metal influences blend seamlessly with jazz; the speed and the dissonant note choices scream Slayer, but the intricate rhythms suggest the fusion-vibes of Miles Davis during the Bitches Brew era. The album then transitions smoothly into the official recording of Govan’s award-winning composition, “Wonderful Slippery Thing.” Combining a funky groove and bubbly chords with heavy riffs and a guitar melody that I’m sure will go down as one of the greatest of all time, “Wonderful Slippery Thing” is indubitably the quintessential Guthrie Govan song. 

One of the defining features of Erotic Cakes is Govan’s ability to capture his sense of humor in music. Many of the titles on this record are ridiculous enough to elicit a chuckle upon first glance; “Ner Ner,” which Govan wrote with Richie Kotzen of Poison and Mr. Big fame, comes to mind. However, it’s the little pieces of ear candy that Govan laces so expertly in the middle of a melodic phrase or a solo, like making his guitar squeal like a pig on the track “Eric” or using pitch-shifting effects on “Uncle Skunk,” that draw out a laugh—not only because of how weird they sound, but also out of sheer amazement. One of the sillier songs on this album is a speedy flatpicking romp called “Rhode Island Shred,” which Govan wrote with former Guns N’ Roses guitarist Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal. The shortest song on the album at just over two minutes, the frenetic playing on “Rhode Island Shred” gives the listener the feeling of being at a hoedown while on amphetamines. 

Adding yet another layer of complexity to his music, the tracks “Fives” and “Sevens” highlight Govan’s flawless command of non-standard time signatures. “Fives” is an exploration of the nearly ubiquitous use of 5/4 time in jazz. In contrast, “Sevens” is a moody and brooding track, with shifts from incendiary shred licks to calm, ambient passages that demonstrate another one of Govan’s signature techniques: using both hands to tap notes on the fretboard, creating a beautifully cascading arpeggiated melody that makes his guitar sound like a piano.

Perhaps my personal favorite song on the record is “Slidey Boy,” a fun jazz tune that shows Govan’s ability to masterfully solo on an acoustic guitar. Mixing in elements of funk and world music, while combining the percussive picking style of jazz legend Al Di Meola, Govan creates a melody that dances around the fretboard with incredible fluidity and occasionally places emphasis on certain notes that might sound wrong at first but are so obviously the right choice. The album concludes with its slowest jam, “Hangover,” the complete antithesis of the preceding track, “Rhode Island Shred.” The deliberate sluggishness in Govan’s playing on “Hangover” not only serves as the perfect counterpart to “Rhode Island Shred,” but also is a unique way to close out an album brimming with as much energy as this one. The hazy, languishing chord progressions, the lackadaisical drumming and even the melody truly capture the essence of waking up to a splitting headache and scrambling to find two Advil and a glass of water. And, just like a hangover, the song doesn’t really end, but lingers without any real resolution until the drums just stop. Great guitarists are able to depict abstract emotions like happiness and sadness in their songs, but it takes a special talent to convey a feeling through instrumental guitar that no other guitarist has done before. This is exactly what Govan has accomplished on Erotic Cakes.
Whether you’re a guitar nerd like me or just a casual listener, Guthrie Govan’s music will captivate you. His level of skill on guitar is so incomprehensibly advanced that few guitarists, if any, can truly match his abilities. And still, the soulfulness in Govan’s playing has remained untainted by a desire to simply be the fastest or most technical player. To put it bluntly, if 1960’s blues-rock legend Eric Clapton was good enough to earn the nickname “God” during his time in Cream, then Guthrie Govan’s arrival to the guitar scene in the mid-2000s was like the coming of Christ.

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