At just under 30 minutes, Alain Johannes's slim and strong Spark is one of the rare cases where guitar-geek fussiness yields magnificent results. Johannes, who founded the '90s hard-rock group Eleven and has worked for Queens of the Stone Age, plays all manners of unusual stringed instruments, ranging from a homemade cigfiddle to a harmonium and a contrabass guitar. But this instrumental diversity is more than just technically impressive.
Conceived and recorded after the 2008 death of Natasha Shneider, Johannes's wife and former bandmate, Spark is a musical illustration of the grieving process, what Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme calls "the examination of figuring out what you do when someone's gone." The album's turbulent tracks ache with audible sadness. "It's killing me that I must go on living," Johannes wails on opener "Endless Eyes," and the album progresses gradually from this dark point, hopping evenly from racing, emotional statements to shattered ballads and back.
But Spark is far from funereal or drab. That first song accepts living as a perfunctory, mechanical activity in the face of immediate tragedy, but later ones find Johannes regaining his footing through a kind of bitter acceptance, his grief solidifying into something manageable. "Laughing with God at this unfinished plan," he remarks wryly on "Unfinished Plan," a strange, airy track that closes the album far from where it began. Earlier on, the whirling-dervish tone of the Middle Eastern-influenced "Make God Jealous" suggests a lively, mystical acceptance which eventually leaks into other tracks, both in terms of its inspired exoticism and noticeable sense of joy.
As an album-length evaluation of grief, Spark works on both an intellectual and visceral level, its broad guitar sounds both soothing and technically ambitious. "Speechless" is a ringing, roving song that incorporates Indian elements and undulating chants into a mesmerizing final product. Musically and lyrically intelligent, with an instrumental depth that would be impressive even it weren't so cohesively incorporated, Spark feels like a success on all fronts.