We’ve all seen bands who have sounded amazing in concert, only to find out when we go back home and give their CD a listen, the music on disc simply cannot measure up to the live experience. Guapo must be one hell of a live band, because you sure don’t feel any real musical potency on their new record. The avant-garde progressive rock trio have been around for over 10 years, yielding six albums, and their latest, Black Oni, continues right where their last release Five Suns left off. It’s actually the second part of a trilogy of albums, which basically means it’s yet another extended, continual instrumental piece, a five-track, 45-minute suite that mines such sounds as jazz fusion, krautrock, post punk, and late ‘60s hard rock. If you like vintage King Crimson, there should be no reason not to like Guapo, as the London trio have all the ingredients for a brilliant prog rock band, in a highly talented multi-instrumentalist, a thunderous percussionist, and a versatile guitarist/bassist. That said, there always seems to be something lacking from this band, that one quality that continues to make such great 1970s acts such as Can, King Crimson, and Goblin so enjoyable three decades later: the ability to compose a good, memorable song.
Instead, Guapo just adhere to the prog rock template, and much like what The Mars Volta did on their mesmerizing, yet frustrating single-track album Frances the Mute, there seems to be too much focus on virtuosity, and not enough on the actual songwriting itself. Granted, Guapo certainly know how to put together an all-instrumental album like this one, as Black Oni ebbs and flows comfortably for its entire duration, Daniel O’Sullivan’s atmospheric keyboards creating quiet, ambient moments via mellotron, harmonium, and Fender Rhodes, only to be interrupted by sudden squalls of Dave Smith’s charging drum fills and Matt Thompson’s slicing guitar licks, the two contrasting sounds alternating back and forth. The concept works very well on Track Three (there are no song titles), as the song combines the dark, murky tones of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew (all that’s needed is a bass clarinet, and Miles himself), the more laid-back spaced-out keyboard excursions that Can pulled off on Tago Mago, as well as the monstrous, superheavy sounds of late ‘60s stalwarts Vanilla Fudge, as it all builds to a boisterous climax just past the midway point.
The rest of the album, while not repellent in the least, simply bobs along safely. The 12-minute Track Two careens along at a frantic, Fantomas-style pace, but Guapo’s attempt at menacing noise rock simply pales in comparison to the great supergroup. O’ Sullivan’s musicianship on Track Four is especially impressive, as layers of keyboards intertwine, creating a dreamy, six-minute respite before the entire band re-enters on the lengthy closing track, on which the trio’s playing becomes much more forceful, Thompson’s rolling bassline laying a modal jazz foundation, allowing Smith to showcase his tremendous drumming ability, and for O’Sullivan to step to the forefront on both Rhodes and mellotron.
Black Oni sounds great, it’s very tightly performed, the band displaying the precision, discipline, and pure chops that make a prog trio great, but more often than not, it sounds too much like an empty exercise, something that can perk a listener’s ears up every once in a while, but can’t quite capture anyone’s complete, undivided attention for more than a few minutes at a time. If ever there was a case of an album you have to hear a few times in advance before you buy it, it’s this one. Or, even better, you can just skip this one entirely, and start buying any of the exceptional Can reissues, King Crimson’s Red, Comets on Fire’s Blue Cathedral, or Fantomas’s fun Suspended Animation instead. Black Oni is ambitious and moody enough, but is too often is in dire need of some good old flair.