Instrumental rock is always a difficult avenue to pursue, because the audience expectation for vocal hooks or lyrical narratives is nearly impossible to overcome. An instrumental band has to be able to compensate for what most perceive them to be lacking by showcasing unique strengths. Although Shark Quest demonstrates an embarrassment of riches in the talent department, excellent musicianship is not always enough to make a mark on the mind of the casual listener. While Gods and Devils is top-loaded to show-off an onslaught of subtle and skillful guitar playing, Shark Quest on the whole remain anonymous and gimmick-free, allowing the music to expertly plead its case to a tragically empty courtroom.
Gods and Devils, the third album by Shark Quest, is a record of contradictions. The name of the band hints at adventure, but the music stays firmly grounded in a somewhat retro three-guitar mélange of southern Americana and world folk; the end result better matches the experience of watching an antiquated travelogue than going on a modern safari. The title of the album conjures the mighty supernatural, but the feel of the music is earthy and mundane. Most frustratingly, the special attention the record ultimately requires is only obvious after giving it considerable time and effort. The complex arrangements are immediately striking, but they never rely too heavily on mood and ambience, which can belie how intricate and immersing they actually are.
The compositions here are marvelous displays of forward momentum in sophisticated songwriting. When running times traditionally exceed seven or eight minutes, composition usually gives way to improvisation or repetition; Gods and Devils proves otherwise. Intended for soundtracks, these pieces at times feel as if they are missing a visual component, but they still manage to tell their own stories; the catch is that the band is careful to keep each narrative abstract. A wealth of musical dialogue minimizes the drama, and at times the conversation can feel like a foreign language, beautiful to behold but impossible to understand.
“Shivers” is the most conservative and accessible piece here: a pastiche of alt-rock, motorik, and prog balladry that is impressive for the way it deliberately switches gears after four minutes without losing focus or feeling like opposite parts grafted together. Similarly structured, “Three Ivy Leaves” begins at a meandering crawl, but eventually works its way into a surprisingly seductive Middle Eastern frenzy. On “Gibbous Orisha”, the band spends half its time twiddling in pedestrian Spanish flair—like an ornate cousin to R.E.M.‘s jokey “Underneath the Bunker”—but raises the temperature when necessary, dependably reaching a spicy richness. But while the album’s most successful track, “Katherine of Krakow”, is its most cinematic, the portrait drawn is still just an impression. Even though sultry strings and forceful piano enhance the guitars with an air of sinister class, the subject herself remains a mystery.
Despite Shark Quest’s astonishing ability as writers and performers, their lack of concrete definition in both their own presentation and their music’s illustrative meaning assured the invisibility of Gods and Devils on 2004’s musical landscape. Though the songs appear in a limited-release documentary about underground animator Bruce Bickford, Shark Quest will undoubtedly benefit from a media outlet of higher profile for their next project, if they wish to continue to pursue music dependent on outside hooks to score an audience.
// Notes from the Road
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