Gregor Samsa


by Chris Baynes

17 July 2008


The timing of Rest could be unexpectedly inspired. Gregor Samsa have always been somewhat overshadowed by their shoegazing post-rock peers. Perhaps it is that their sound is a slow-burning one, creeping quietly into consciousness even when it ultimately ends in the crescendo that has become the genre’s staple. Perhaps, alternatively, it is due to more mundane matters, like budgets and lucky breaks. Whatever, there’s something about the New York outfit that doesn’t fit with movie soundtracks and panoramic nature footage quite as easy as other bands with a reputation for the atmospheric. Instead, it’s more contemplative—it’s music to accompany night-time introspection in lonely lamp-lit bedrooms or for gazing spaceward underneath star-speckled skies.

And that, more than ever, could now be to Gregor Samsa’s benefit. Because one aspect of consensus in certain camps regarding aspects of Sigur Rós’s recently released fifth long-player Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust was that the group had tired out their painstakingly meticulous climaxes. “Ára bátur” was held particularly culpable: though for some it was an epic of unparalleled grandeur; others saw it as ridiculously overblown work of bombast, almost laughably over-the-top.

cover art

Gregor Samsa


US: 13 May 2008
UK: 31 Dec 1969

It is unlikely that Rest will be the beneficiary of such laudations, nor the victim of like accusations. Because where others—Gregor’s previous releases in part included—favour calculated crescendos whipped out of well-trodden mountains of sound, the build-up often gradual but frequently inevitable, Rest opts for a sonic terrain more latitudinous, streams and glaciers of often beautiful melody habitually present but subtly so, buried beneath a snowy blanket of restraint. What’s strange about this is that they’ve done so while simultaneously expanded their palette of timbre; Rest‘s instrumental range sees an expansion on the string-augmented guitar-bass-drums combo largely employed on debut full-length 55:12 but the end result is a beautifully understated one, taking slow considered steps rather than steady, inevitable progression.

There’s no better example of this than on the “The Adolescent”, which ever-so-carefully adds weight to its opening gossamer glockenspiel line in the form of a similarly fragile piano, tentative flugelhorn and ultimately the introduction of Nikki King’s airy vocal. The upsurge is so gradual that it passes barely unnoticed until, three minutes in, the piano breaks its reserve and you realise the beauty of what you’re enveloped in. And though “The Adolescent” opens proceedings, its considered approach sets Rest‘s pervasive tone. “Ain Leuh” sees King and co-vocalist Champ Bennett harmonise over sweeping strings, ripples of keys and a drip-drop of bass and drums, and while “Abutting, Dismantling” trods to the steady march of singular piano chord and a corresponding drumbeat, it is purposeful rather than combative in nature. “Jeroen Van Aken” hints at climactic destination, and perhaps in the past that’s where it would have ended up, but here Gregor Samsa take the low road and the swelling of guitars gives way to King and Bennett’s clandestine whispers.

The overall effect of this introversion is one of an intimacy rare for a genre that usually favours the grand and expansive over the personal. When King, with equal parts heartbreak and resignation, sighs that it “seems the devil’s got a grip on me”, it strikes a chord with any tortured soul or woe-befallen being unable to quite see light at the end of the tunnel. “Pseudonyms” is similarly affecting, sublime ripples of piano the only thing able to break up the King’s continued dejection.

Problem is, Rest is such an understated album that it practically requires this level of involvement to be maintained throughout, which isn’t something Gregor quite achieve. The album is almost entirely singular in tone, which isn’t an issue when, on the likes of “The Adolescent” and “Pseudonyms”, the arrangements practically bleed emotion and magnificence. But “Du Meine Leise” and “Company” are little more than pretty pictures, with nothing beyond aesthetic to become immersed in, and that’s when the beautifully understated becomes the underwhelming.

That’s not to discredit the record too much, however. It is both refreshing and captivating for an album to be so carefully considered, every single shift in tone or introduction of instrument delicately handled and measured to perfection. That the album itself isn’t quite perfection is a small disappointment, but let it not detract from what is the perfect antidote to overblown pomposity that often infects post-rock; this is a record intentionally short of drama in favour of dark, heart-melting immersion.



Topics: gregor samsa
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