Album Review: Byrn D. Paul — ‘The Great Vehicle’

Byrn D. Paul is one of those musicians on a wavelength entirely their own.

He plays guitar, cello, violin, oud, koto, pedal steel guitar and modular synthesizer on The Great Vehicle. On previous releases he positively shreds on the guitar, but this latest album is not about virtuosity. Technical skill is a requirement for this kind of music, and it’s as much a product of Paul’s digital audio production mojo as it is his fingers on strings.

His lyrics are also ambitious, exploring a syncretic, multi-modal mysticism. He’s concerned with Life, the Universe and Everything. I still laugh at Beavis & Butthead. So for this album I’ll take Ludwig Wittgenstein’s advice: It’s something whereof I cannot speak so I’ll remain silent.

Philosophizing aside, there are many great musical ideas here, elegantly performed, recorded and produced. Paul is a guitarist primarily and there’s plenty of texture and rhythm from his guitar. None of the songs are verse/chorus/verse pop songs. The closest contemporary analog to what he’s doing is Joanna Newsom. They both write intricately structured, sophisticated pieces that take you to unexpected places.

“Sophia Samsara” closes the album but is a good place to start examination. Beginning with the sound of flowing water, church bells and spoken word poetry: “I never saw the bushes stir to admit the sacred guardian fawn / Foltchain, in her snow-white pelt.” The vocals are subtly pitch-shifted and processed to sound portentous. But following that, you’re surprised by an almost conventional song, a lullaby of sorts. Though, I’m not sure a child would be comforted by the lyrics “Rejecting vice and nihilism / Embracing bliss beyond distinction.”

“Blue (III) Birds” is constructed in layers, including electric piano, inchoate rumbling found sound and the koto. Without being too on the nose, recordings of bird song enter during the song’s outro, which is awash with varied musical timbres including violin, cello, guitar and what I think is the wind rustling leaves. This is 21st century music, a digitally assembled bricolage.

Alongside the lyrics in the extensive booklet included with the album is discussion of specific guitars, effect pedals and VST instruments used in production. The technical detail is presented as earnestly important as the mystical lyrics and poems. It’s a bold, wonky move.

You don’t often hear an album so lush and deeply worked from an Iowa musician. Paul harkens back to the 1960s psychedelic explosion of Pink Floyd, The Moody Blues and Yes, but his music could only be created in this digital future.

Throughout The Great Vehicle, Paul saddles his lyrics with a lot of sincere ruminations on discovering the sacred and mysterious truths of life. Yet the music itself is also lovingly independent of his philosophical intent.

My alternate title for the album could be Never Mind the Gnosticism, Here’s Bryn D Paul. One can let the lyrics wash over them and focus on the pleasures of melody, harmony and auditory texture.

This article was originally published in Little Village’s March 2023 issues.