The Gong Farmers, Guano Junction, Spaceward Records, November 5, 2021
Tracks: As Sunlight Falls 1 (2:26), Drive (6:14), Pip, Squeak and Wilfred 1 (3:56), Guano Junction 3 (2:43), Evergreen (4:24), As Sunlight Falls 2 (2:42), Vista de Toledo (3:22), Guano Junction 2 (3:52), Wednesday Afternoon (4:42), SHAVE! (1:41), Winter Hill (3:32), Dark Skies (4:19), Pip, Squeak and Wilfred 2 (3:28)
I have to start off this review talking about the best band name I’ve heard in a while. Before today I was blissfully unaware of what a gong farmer was, having not heard the term before receiving this CD for review. It’s kind of funny, actually, considering one of my main focuses as a history major in undergrad was early modern Europe, but there’s always more to learn. I looked it up, and a gong farmer was someone in Tudor England tasked with cleaning excrement from outhouses. While that might lead you to believe that Guano Junction is a steaming pile of… gong, nothing could be further from the truth. The album is quite good, with a mature sound and a delightful array of influences.
The Gong Farmers are primarily Mark Graham (vocals, synthesizers) and Andrew Keeling (classical guitar, flute, piano, organ), but they are joined by a very talented cast of supporting musicians, including David Jackson, the saxophonist for Van Der Graaf Generator. Here’s a list of everyone else who played on the album:
- Alex Che (vocals, synthesizers)
- Cliff Hewitt (drums, percussion)
- René van Commenée (drums, percussion)
- Ricardo Odriozola (violins)
- Ben Keeling (electric guitar)
- Martin Walker (electric guitar)
- Brian Taylor (electric guitar and textures)
- Noko 440 (viola and string arrangements)
The array of musicians should give you a hint of the variety found in their music, which bears elements of 1960s psychedelic rock (could be why they are on a label called Spaceward Records). Their sound expands beyond that, though, incorporating electronic, symphonic, jazz, and, of course, prog elements.
“Pip, Squeak and Wilfred 1” and “Pip, Squeak and Wilfred 2” are my favorite tracks on the album. They simultaneously have a strong Moody Blues influence and a huge Muse influence. The vocal effects on the song really bring in the Muse sound, reminding me a lot of “Exogenesis,” the three part symphony that ends Muse’s brilliant 2009 album, Resistance. The lyrics on these two tracks are short and simple, but they make you think.
Today I found my father’s medals in a drawer
And I thought of all the sacrifice,
All the sufferings of war
As you can see from the tracklisting, these songs are on the shorter side. They work together to form a cohesive sound, although the songs stand by themselves. “SHAVE!” is a strange track, being more a collection of various sounds and textures, which would be the psychedelic side of things. I suppose it reminds me a bit of the beginning of “The Waiting Room” off Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Speaking of Genesis, the inclusion of flute throughout Guano Junction reminds me a bit of them, although “Guano Junction 3” also has some Jethro Tull to it.
Classical guitar plays a fairly prominent role on the album. At times it reminds me of some of Steve Hackett’s more recent solo work. “Evergreen,” for instance, has that world and classical influence, although I hear some Muse-style sounds towards the end. The gentle and melancholic Spanish-style guitar on “Vista de Toledo” has a very warm and contemplative feel. Lyrically the track is a love song reflecting on lovers apart from each other. The melancholy in the music reflects those lyrics rather well.
“Dark Skies” has a sparse Floydian guitar solo that is played over simple plucked strings with vocal effects swirling around. It’s a simple way to frame a guitar solo, but it works in the context of The Gong Farmers’ music.
For me “Pip, Squeak and Wilfred” parts 1 and 2 are worth the price of admission. They stand out on the album with a compelling symphonic melody and atmospheric vocal effects that take you to another dimension. The flute playing in the background makes it that much better. If you listen to anything off this album, make it those two tracks. But do yourself a favor and check out the rest of the record while you’re at it. It has a compelling blend of psychedelic spaciness with symphonic overtones.