New York progressive rock musician and composer Michael Bernier takes a "multi-instrumental" approach to The Stick.
feature by Greg Howard
Many players choose The Stick for its two-part performance, composition and arrangement capabilities. Whether that means laying down a bassline with chordal rhythm, or right-hand soloing over left hand chord changes, or any independent two-handed sub-technique in between, the goal is to serve multiple roles at once, like a keyboardist playing right on the strings, or a very well-integrated bass/guitar rhythm section. While he has explored these aspects of The Stick, multi-instrumentalist Michael Bernier focuses primarily on using both hands to execute single parts — leads, rhythm patterns, bass lines, either in multi-track recording process, or trading between these roles onstage in a band context.
VIDEO: A visit with Michael Bernier at his home studio in Saugerties, New York.
Michael's path to notoriety came as a founding member of Tony Levin's "Stick Men" trio, together with King Crimson drummer Pat Mastelloto. Tony and Michael, who both live in the same Upstate New York area worked together on complimentary Stick techniques while Tony recorded his Stick Man CD. Shortly thereafter they began two years of extensive touring, developing much of the material for the Stick Men trio's Soup CD through live performances. While they shared bass, lead and even vocal duties, Michael spent more time occupying the "lead guitar chair", developing a two-handed style heavily influenced in sound and technique by legendary guitarists Allan Holdsworth, John McLaughlin and David Torn, as well as electric violinist Jean Luc Ponty. Michael's affinity for the bow also spread throughout the group, with all three musicians bowing on Sticks and cymbals at one point in their performance.
Soaring over densely layered Stick, guitar and drum beds, Michael's two-handed lead sound is fast and fluid, with an electronically enhanced tone that Holdsworth even helped him craft. His rapid-fire, two-handed bass punctuates his drum tracks, often as much a "lead voice" as his expressive melody solos. Also an accomplished drummer and vocalist, he has all the elements at his disposal to produce his heavy progressive rock ensemble sound, building his rich orchestrations track by track. Our first taste of Michael's solo music came in 2011, with his CD, Leviathan (reviewed on stick.com), which introduced us to his many talents, which also include artwork and record production. Several guest performers — Pat Mastelotto/drums, Michael Schirmer/bass clarinet and piano, Caryn Fitzgibbon/violin, Kandy Harris/Vocals — also made contributions. His compositions expand the progresive rock genre with elements of heavy metal and jazz fusion, like distorted power chords, extended harmonic progressions, and some blisteringly fast drumming, basslines and lead solos.
I visited Michael in November, while he was laying down tracks for his new CD release Veil. The first thing I noticed upon entering his work space was the muted, colorful light and costant humming and bubbling provided by numerous fish tanks. It's an unlikely backdrop for a musical space, but it was soon clear that Michael is an expert at cutting through the background distractions to focus on the element at hand. We talked a bit about his recording process and demoed a few of his signature techniques.
Veil will be released in 2013.
Stick Men (Michael Bernier, Pat Mastelotto and Tony Levin) perform Michael's composition "Fugue" at NAMM in 2009
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