I’ve been listening to a lot of Allan Holdsworth’s music over the past year and finally got to his 1986 album Atavachron.
Atavachron is the first album where Holdsworth played his SynthAxe, which is a MIDI controller that is shaped something like a guitar (see below).
The title of the album and its cover art reference an episode of the original Star Trek called All Our Yesterdays. In the episode, Spock, Kirk, and McCoy encounter a time travel device called the Atavachron and get into some trouble along the way.
The SynthAxe didn’t make any sound on its own but just produced MIDI signals.
Only about 100 SynthAxes were made, and they were expensive. Wikipedia says that the SynthAxe was about $13,000 USD in the 80s. According to this dollar converter, that would have been about $30,000 in 2021 dollars.
Here are a couple of short video with clips of Allan Holdsworth playing a SynthAxe:
“I don’t really consider myself a guitar player anyway, because I never really wanted to play guitar. I don’t really like guitar very much. It’s not the instrument I would have chosen if I could have chosen at the time when I started to play, because I would have played horn I think. Maybe saxophone.”
SynthAxes were interesting, but I don’t think that devices like that will return, because it’s now possible to create similar guitar effects with $99 software.
The Cover Art Concept
I watched the Star Trek episode (All Our Yesterdays), and the cover is right out of the story. The Atavachron is a device that prepares people for time travel. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy land on a planet and are sent through a time travel portal after viewing images on circular disks like the one shown on the album cover.
The image below shows the original Atavachron device. (Note the panel on the top right, because it’s mentioned later in this blog post.)
On the album cover, Allan Holdsworth is about to walk through the time travel portal and teleport from the 23rd Century to the 1980s with his futuristic SynthAxe.
If you’re interested in the album, it’s worth watching the Star Trek episode.
Here’s a comparison between the album cover and a scene from the episode:
The Atavachron Device
In my research, I also stumbled across a hardware device that recreates a panel from the Atavachron. You can actually buy one on Etsy.
Further Reading and Listening
Atavachron isn’t my favorite Allan Holdsworth album, but it’s worth checking out. I’d recommend listening to it a few times before forming an opinion about it. If you haven’t listened to any of Allan Holdsworth’s music before, start with Soft Machine first, because it’s much more accessible. His playing with Tony Williams Lifetime Experience and Gong in the 1970s is also good.
Holdsworth did at least one other Star Trek themed song with Tony Williams called Mr. Spock:
Tony Williams also played drums on at least one of the Atavachron tracks.
Here are a couple of starting points for further research:
I think that at this moment I’m capable to play the SynthAxe a whole lot better. On the last LP, “Atavachron”, I just got it before we started recording and I had to play and try to fathom the instrument at the same moment, which didn’t make things easier. On my new LP, “Sand”, I almost play just SynthAxe.