Demon – A Love Story (or: My late, yet very timely review of Gazpacho’s latest offering)

The Demon Part:

Most of the reviews of Gazpacho’s latest album, Demon, are already in (including Progarchy’s own reviews). Mine here … well, it’s a little late, considering the album came out in spring and we are demoncovernow on solidly in autumn. Nevertheless, I am going to pat myself on the back and say I’ve made quite an improvement for timeliness for Gazpacho reviews. You see, in June of 2013, I reviewed Tick Tock on this same site. Considering that album came out in 2009, my review was approximately four years after the fact. Now, I’ve whittled my Gazpacho review time down to mere months from release – an order of magnitude improvement! Note: you are not allowed to mention that I’ve never reviewed Missa Atropos or March of Ghosts, capisce?

So, about Demon itself? Haunting is one word that can be used to describe this album. Strange is another one. This album … it’s out there. At times it gives me the creeps, the willies, and the heeby-jeebies. You know what else? It’s damn good, brimming with excellence on par with the other great albums they have released beginning with 2007’s Night.

Demon takes us on a journey through the ramblings of a disturbed individual descending into outright madness. The idea behind the album originates from the writings of an unknown apartment dweller in Prague, with the lyrics based on these ramblings. I’m not going to pretend to have any deep understanding of these lyrics; I don’t. I’ve read through them numerous times and followed them through a few listens of this album. Sure, I have my own ideas as to various possible interpretations. But I do not grok them at this point.

Musically, the album has a very experimental feel to it, or at least more so than the typical Gazpacho album. Sonically, it has a sound quite different than any of their previous works, and yet it is unmistakably Gazpacho.

The album kicks off with I’ve Been Walking. The introduction is light, with a sound effect and some soft vocals before ever so slightly picking up the pace. Throughout the track, slower, mellower, minor key parts alternate with occasional louder, wall of sound bursts. Piano, choral arrangements, mellotron, and the smooth vocals of Jan Henrik Ohme all take their turns as the feature instrument. The track closes with some melancholy solo violin which has become a trademark of Gazpacho. This track is extremely effective in setting the mood for the album as a whole.

Next up is The Wizard of Altai Mountain.   This song is almost whimsical sounding in it’s first of two very distinctive parts. At about the halfway point, the music takes a noticeable change of direction, to a folky accordion that reminds me of some traditional, Eastern European music. It fills me with the urge to drink vodka – no small feat with me being much more of a whisky/beer man. My mind’s eye can picture someone dancing the kazachoc, a traditional Slavic fast dance in which the dancer squats and alternatively kicks out his legs (yes, I had to look that up).

I’ve Been Walking (Part 2) follows, with a much different mood, one of a resigned sadness. Jan-Henrik Ohme’s vocals are excellent throughout the album, but they are especially great on this track. They are particularly effective in expressing the melancholy realization that comes with shattered illusions:

There’s no Altai Mountain

No eternal chord

Lost a diamond

No El Dorado

There is no reward

In the background of this piece a remote, old 78 plays to great effect. The mood of the track shifts a little bit toward the end, maybe as to signal some acceptance that there is “no El Dorado.” It’s one of the lightest parts of the album, along with the first half of The Wizard of Altai Mountain.

The final track, Death Room, is where the strangeness of this album comes to a head. The track announces itself with subterranean rumblings and electronic buzzing before settling into three note mandolin figure which produces some unbelievable tension that is occasionally punctuated by short saws of dissonant violin. This is one of the creepiest, strangest parts of an album full of them, and I can imagine Edgar Allan Poe feeling right at home listening to this as he spun out another macabre tale. Percussion soon joins and pulls the music along, until the piano announces itself and changes the mood with a sudden subtlety that nobody can pull of like Gazpacho. From there, the music progresses through a series of different moods, all suggestive of the unknown apartment dweller losing grip on his sanity. The track and the album proper ends with some very strange percussion that suggests the grip has finally been lost.

Earlier I offered a lame explanation in an attempt to justify the tardiness of my review, considering the album’s springtime release. But let’s get to the real reason. Currently, it’s Autumn – October to be specific. And this album is absolutely made for fall listening. The name Demon conjures up images of that most famous of October celebrations, Halloween. The CD case is a fall color, not unlike one you might see on a dying leave that is going out in one last blaze of colorful glory. And the music … well, it’s hard to define, but it’s definitely fall music. Recently, on Brad’s Facebook page, I saw 6pqvnqf00n6jghv9p3c3o39sj6544affaa7f81ahim shout his love for the month of October, describing it as “purgatorial twilight.” I cannot think of a better light in which to listen to this album. Not the dark, certainly not the bright light of mid-day sun. But late in a fall day, when the last gasps of sunlight collide with the spectacular fall colors that both marvel our sight but also portend the cold grayness of winter is approaching? There could not possibly be a better time to listen to Demon.

If you are one of those lucky souls that lives in an area with a noticeable change of seasons, this is the time you need to get out this album and give it another listen (or a first listen if you haven’t heard it yet). Put the CD in your car’s player, grab your iPod, whatever. Just make sure you are outside toward the end of the day in the light described above … and immerse yourself in the beautiful madness that is Demon.

 

The Love Story Part:

It’s a little over two years now since I heard my first Gazpacho album, Night to be specific. Since that time, I’ve worked my way forward through their catalog, listening to and owning everything right up through Demon. While I still haven’t perused any of their pre-Night catalog, I’ve definitely heard enough to have seriously fallen in love with the music of this incredible band.

Describing the music of Gazpacho to someone who has never heard it is a bit of a challenge. In my review of Tick Tock, I described them subtle and meticulous. While those adjectives certainly ring true, they only convey a small part of the story. Another time recently, while introducing someone to Gazpacho, I described them as a cross between Pink Floyd and late-era Talk Talk. That also conveys part of the story, but by no means does it in full. On another prog site I occasionally visit, I have seen them described as crossover prog … I still have no idea what that means. And I’ve seen a number of other descriptions of Gazpacho, many of which give part of the picture, but none that quite give the whole. It’s not like describing a band such as Iron Maiden as heavy metal. That description gives you a pretty good idea of what they are about, at least in a musical sense. With Gazpacho, giving a two or three word description is never going to be sufficient.

In fact, even describing them as being progressive can be problematic. Don’t get me wrong, I would classify Gazpacho unequivocally as being prog. But they are unlike any other band in the genre.

With so much of the prog to which I listened on my initial discovery in the late 1970’s – Yes, ELP, Rush, Jethro Tull – there were always virtuoso musicians setting off instrumental fireworks. Gazpacho seems to have turned this ethic completely on its head. You don’t hear long, flashy guitar or keyboard solos, the pyrotechnic drums with a beat that is both discernable and just out of reach, and so on. Much of Gazpacho’s music is built in some very simple riffs. And yet as a testament to their supreme skill and artistry, these simple riffs are combined and arranged into a much greater whole, one of dizzying complexity that gets hidden ever so slightly below a veneer of simplicity. Using a sports metaphor, much of progressive rock could be analogized to professional football or basketball – an obvious complexity accompanied with dazzling theatrics. Gazpacho on the other hand would be more like professional baseball – a simple, subtle game on the surface with a world of complexity underneath for those willing to dig deeper.

Architecturally, their songs defy any conventional structure, unfolding instead with a brilliant logic that becomes apparent by the time you’ve reached the end. It all adds up to a mixture that is challenging to grasp, but easy to love – and one that is progressive rock at it’s absolute, boundary smashing best.gazpacho-demon-cover2-2014

It’s when I survey the current prog landscape that it really hits me, the incredible brilliance of this band. Myself and others on this site have written much about how blessed us fans are in the current age of prog. I loved how the proggers of the 1970s pushed the envelope of rock music to new artistic heights. And yet in what may be the ultimate compliment the previous generation, the best prog bands of today are showing us how their prog ancestors were only scratching the surface. Bands such as Riverside, Porcupine Tree and their leader, Steven Wilson, The Tangent, Big Big Train, and so on – all have taken prog in various directions previously unimagined. So to has Gazpacho. But more than all of these bands, Gazpacho, at least for me, is the most difficult to describe in words. And what really makes that so is this – they are simply the most unique and original sounding band in a golden age of prog that has produced many unique and original sounds. Is it any wonder I’ve fallen so in love with these guys?

Norse Macabre: Gazpacho’s DEMON

gazpacho_demon_2014[A review of Gazpacho, DEMON (Kscope, 2014—digibook edition).  Lyrics by Thomas Andersen and Jan-Henrik Ohme.   Please forgive any typos.  I composed this on my iPad in an airport waiting area.]

Everyone’s favorite artists from Norway have released an eighth studio album, two years in the making. And, not shockingly, it’s brilliant, stunning, and ingenious. If NIGHT is the Poetic Edda of modern progressive rock, DEMON is the Prose Edda.

Our own progarchist editor, Craig Breaden, has already offered his always excellent thoughts on the album, but I can’t let a Gazpacho release go by without also discussing it. So, please consider this review a supplement to Craig’s, certainly not a replacement.

As with every Gazpacho release, on DEMON, Jan-Henrik Ohme’s vocals are immaculate, and Thomas Andersen’s and Ohme’s lyrics reach toward the highest of the high, the most beautiful of the most beautiful.

As with all of seven of their previous albums, on DEMON, the notes linger in a Mark Hollis fashion, melodies emerge through punctuated walls of sound, Ohme’s vocals soar in an introspective aural empire, every instrument is played with loving perfection and always contributes as a sonic res publica. One can find guitar, base, drums, and keyboards here. But, strings, accordions, umpa brass, and Eastern European folks instruments abound as well. Old phonographs spurt statically operatic voices, dinner party crowds murmur, wind howls, and the natural elements create a wash of color in the background, all adding to a perfectly late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century haunting. Though frightening, DEMON’s story reflects an eerie Ray Bradbury horror rather than an H.P. Lovecraftian terrifying one.

It would be hard to find a band in 2014 more suited to long epics than Gazpacho. Really, the band’s only serious rival would be Ayreon. Here, I exclude bands such as Big Big Train, The Tangent, and Glass Hammer, as they rather happily create both concept albums and non-concept albums. Ever since NIGHT, though, Gazpacho has created concept after concept: NIGHT (a dream); TICK TOCK (a journey and escape): MISSA ANTROPOS (a pagan Mass); and MARCH OF GHOSTS (a series of short stories). The last especially offers a thematic prologue to DEMON.

While Ayreon reflects a deep knowledge and a loving embrace of science fiction and is close to infinity in its longing expansiveness, Gazpacho creates a fantastic and fabulist aura of quiet darkness and asks us to reflect on ourselves and our ancestors (our ghosts).

In a previous post here at progarchy, I noted that Gazpacho produces what might be called Eddic prog. DEMON only confirms that. Edda is a word that has no definite origins. It’s seemingly neither of Germanic or Latin origin, yet it appears as a vital word in Medieval Scandinavia. In our modern times, we attach it to the work of Snorri Snurlson. Not quite a Saga (also a perfected art form in Scandinavia), an Edda seems, by best definition, to be an “utterance of the soul.” Really, nothing could better describe the lyrics, the vocals, and the music of Gazpacho.

While I have no intimate knowledge of the band (though J-H Ohme is quite gracious on Facebook in answering my pesky questions and putting up with my innumerable tags of him), I suspect that DEMON is meant to be a second or third chapter in a long line of stories dealing with the supernatural. It began either with MISSA ANTROPOS (the calling of the Muses into this world) or with MARCH OF GHOSTS. The latter, though, seems more of a follow-up rather than a beginning. MISSA ANTROPOS certainly has the makings of a prologue or opening chapter to a long novel. If I could offer Gazpacho one piece of advice, it would be this: make the next album about Scandinavia. Images of Sigurd (baptized St. Michael after Christian evangelists appeared), the gods and heroes of the Seeress’s prophecy of Ragnorak, and the modern works of Sigrid Unset would all serve to continue this story so imaginatively begun by Gazpacho.. Imagine the use of traditional Scandinavia folk music (which bled readily from the pagan into the Christian/Lutheran), melodies, and instruments; and the imagery of Nordic prowess, AllThings, rune stones, and the Stave churches. My wannabe Viking heart swells just thinking about the possibilities.

Many reviewers have compared Gazpacho’s music to Radiohead or Sigur Ros, but I don’t hear that. If anything, Gazpacho offers a much more energetic vision first expressed by Mark Hollis and Tim Friese-Greene in 1988’s SPIRIT OF EDEN and 1991’s LAUGHING STOCK. Yet, these comparisons are inadequate. Gazpacho, as with all great bands and artists, is at once backward looking, inward looking, and forward looking. Rarely, however, do artists display the kind of confidence that this band so joyously does. Gazpacho is its own band and never a mimicry of another band. They may very well build on the music of Hollis and Friese-Greene, but they have taken it in directions that Talk Talk never could or would.

No, Gazpacho is its own. Its own beauty, its own excellence, and its own genius. Long may they pursue goodness, truth, and beauty, even while examining the horrors of the macabre.