I heard Gregor Samsa for the first time after picking up their 2002 EP, Gregor Samsa, because I liked the cover. It was a piece of semi-transparent pale grey plastic with excerpts from Kafka printed across the front and drawings of circles in place of song titles. The songs were called “O”, “OO” and “OOO.” If you wanted to say them aloud, it would be “Spot,” ” Spot Spot ” and ” Spot Spot Spot,” or “Circle Circle,” or “Oooh.” You’d be in the same boat as reviewers who tried to cope with Sigur Rós’ ( ), which was released in the same year.
The band is like Sigur Rós in other ways. They like to play long soundscapes, the kind of thing that goes -
Singer says a word or two.
An instrument goes bong.
I enjoy this sort of music, so 55:12 and I get along together well. Gregor Samsa don’t have the icy, delicate sweep of Sigur Rós or the storybook sparkle of Múm, but they occupy a darkened corner of their own, a buried place with stretches of tension and one or two startling monsters that crash out at you.
The music begins softly, builds slowly, and then the instruments come together in a crescendo before everything tapers off again. You’ve heard a framework like this before, and you’ve heard the ideas they use to fill it: whispering, fragile voices; a strummed guitar; a distant scrape; a shimmer that wells out of the background and surrounds you as if you’re swimming through your own bloodstream listening to the muffled ticking and shuffling of a submerged world. Parts of it could be the soundtrack for your next visit to the womb. It’s to Gregor Samsa’s credit that they can keep the soundscape going for almost an hour without violating the internal harmony of the thing or letting it sag. The ideas they draw on are not always their own but they use them well.
They’ve moved away from the misty grey plastic cover of their first release, and this time the CD sits inside an envelope of dark grey cardboard which is wrapped in a belt of brown paper. The names of the songs are written on this belt and nowhere else, so I’m going to be careful not to lose it even though the tone of 55:12 makes me wonder if titles really matter that much. “Makeshift Shelters,” “Young And Old,” “What I Can Manage,” and the rest, are evocative rather than descriptive. Texture seems more important here than prosaic meaning. Not a lot has changed since the EP of “O"s. The arrangements are more complicated and lush than they used to be, and the temperament of the music has grown darker, but they’re still, recognisably, the same band.
I bought Múm’s Summer Make Good partly on the strength of its packaging and if I didn’t already have a copy of 55:12 I’d be tempted to do the same here, but I’m aware that as soon as I finish this review and put the album on my shelf, the cardboard envelope will slip into a crack between two of the wider, plastic CD cases and I’ll have to search like crazy to find it again. Still, I’ll make the effort. I like 55:12, despite the fact that I’m always being reminded of other albums while I’m listening to it. I’ll want to play to it again, just as I’ll play Rothko again and Sigur Rós again. It’s in good company.