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Gazpacho

March of the Ghosts

(Kscope; US: 13 Mar 2012; UK: 12 Mar 2012)

Depending on your tolerance for sonically intemperate journeys, progressive rock’s lack of moderation is either the genre’s most wonderful or repellent feature (I’m of the former opinion myself). Whatever your viewpoint, there’s surely no other branch of the musical family tree in which you’ll find a Norwegian band named after a Spanish soup releasing an album filled with short stories about the ghosts of victims and victimizers haunting a central character over a single night.


March of the Ghosts marks the seventh album from Oslo-based Gazpacho. As you’d expect from a prog band well into its career, the new album is a lustrously polished example of artfully composed melodic rock. The fact it’s such an overly familiar affair makes it all the more disappointing. Residing at the nexus where alternative rock meets neo and atmospheric prog, March of the Ghosts’ unhurried melodies are undeniably picturesque and evocative. It’s just an awful shame that the images and mood it evokes are of other bands, particularly renowned British neo-prog outfit Marillion.


Gazpacho’s associations with Marillion run deep. The founding members of Gazpacho were all members of Marillion’s Scandinavian fanclub and played at fan conventions. Marillion has even released Gazpacho’s albums on its own label, and served as confidant and tour-mate. One could crudely describe much of Gazpacho’s work as latter-day Marillion-lite (watered down, with half the flavor). The band has clearly been determined to step out from under its mentor’s shadow—notably with its grand ‘10 release, Missa Atropos—but has never been able to completely dilute Marillion’s tang.


Of course, there’s nothing inherently dishonorable in mimicking aspects of a consummate outfit like Marillion. The band has spent the last three decades wowing audiences with its multi-layered suites. Its crucial role in fostering the genre’s popularity (influencing countless euphonious prog bands along the way) means its easily recognizable resonance is ingrained throughout the melodic end of the contemporary prog spectrum.


Gazpacho certainly deserves credit for attempting to leave those vestiges of Marillion behind. Rich instrumentation is brought to the fore on the new album, and a great deal of delicate phrasing is layered beneath what initially seems like some of the band’s most straightforward work. Gazpacho easily establishes a sentimental tone on March of the Ghosts. The album’s wistfulness never becomes farcically morose, and the ethereal interactions at its narrative core are reflected in the album’s plaintive disposition. All of which is business as usual for an adroit outfit like Gazpacho. The band has no problem infusing its material with considerable and sincere poignancy.

March of the Ghosts contains many luxuriant moments that fans of sophisticated and subdued rock would find extremely enchanting. The four-part suite “Hell Freezes Over” is split throughout the album, beautifully mixing bittersweet symphonic and string melodies, folksy ambience, and droning guitars. “Mary Celeste” ends on an appropriately shanty like cadence, with renaissance-fair flute revealing its folksy heart. “Black Lily” goes in for shimmering Muse-like balladry, with vocalist Jan-Henrik Ohme’s distinct Matt Bellamy-like intonation drawing the plaintive pop to the surface. “Golem” and “Dumb”, while similarly downcast, meld intricate jazzy passages with the band’s pop-savvy, diaphanous rock.


Breaking down the album’s narrative into vignettes was a wise move. Gazpacho’s more succinct songwriting style means there are no convoluted passages to decipher, and the relaxed, dreamy tempo of the new album ensures it flows with an understated charm. The album’s blend of simplicity and satiny sophistication also gives it broad crossover appeal, but its finest attributes also highlight its failings. For all of March of the Ghosts’ gentle refinement, it drifts dangerously close to ill-defined background music on occasions. When the band does manage to rustle up a bit more enthusiasm, there’s an all too familiar tone to the proceedings.


Gazpacho’s desire to escape Marillion’s orbit is admirable. But its decision to lean more heavily on a reflective and atmospheric aesthetic means its work inevitably becomes comparable to that of Kscope label-mates Anathema (a case of out of the frying pan into the fire if there ever was one). Anathema is famed for instinctively enshrouding listeners with its beautifully crestfallen tenor. However, in Gazpacho’s case you’re required to pick up that veil yourself, as the band has none of Anathema’s immediacy, innovativeness, or warmth—instead, you must search for it. Ohme’s vocals don’t help. While there’s no doubting his earnestness, he rarely rises above sounding dejected, and that constant sense of despondency leaves one searching for the rousing emotional pay-off.


In many ways it’s not Gazpacho’s fault it struggles to find a sense of uniqueness; it’s hardly an even playing field the band finds itself on. Trying to break free from Marillion’s legacy, only to run straight into Anathema’s silhouette, was perhaps an unavoidable trap. Although there are issues with the somewhat calculated nature of March of the Ghosts, it’s by no means a catastrophe. In fact, all comparisons aside, there is much to admire. Thomas Anderson’s keyboard work flirts wonderfully with the neo-classical and sublime, Mikael Krømer’s violin adds significant pathos, and guitarist Jon-Arne Vilbos draws from a wide range of sources, including folk, blues and post-rock. The components are all there, and Gazpacho certainly circles a distinctive voice. But you have to wonder, after seven albums, if the band will ever reach its final destination.

Rating:

Craig Hayes is based in Aotearoa New Zealand, and he is a contributing editor and columnist at PopMatters. Alongside his reviews and feature articles, Craig's monthly column, Ragnarök, traverses the metal spectrum. He is the co-author of PopMatters' regular metal round-up, Mixtarum Metallum, contributes to radio shows and numerous other sites, and he favours music that clangs, bangs, crashes, or drones. Craig can be found losing followers daily on twitter @sixnoises.


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