[1 May 2014]
“Prog” still remains a dirty word. Particularly for those in the indie fold, the word connotes an unjustified excess, conjuring up fears of ten-minute drum solos, cheesy keyboard textures, and grandiloquent concept albums about planets yet unexplored. Back in the genre’s halcyon days, the distinction between what is now called “classic” rock and “progressive” rock was blurred; liking Pink Floyd wasn’t that much of a leap from liking Led Zeppelin, and so on. (Of course, “progressive” or “prog” rock is a term that was not used all that frequently, if at all, during the ‘70’s and early ‘80’s.) Even today, a group like Rush gets touted as one of classic rock’s finest outfits, even though all the complexity that groups like Dream Theater continue to (feebly) trot out are present in LPs like 2112 and Hemispheres. After all, the subtitle of the latter’s finale, “La Villa Strangiato,” reads: “An Exercise in Self-Indulgence.”
By contrast, liking no-frills rock in the vein of the Black Keys is eons away from liking prog’s present mainstays, notably Dream Theater, Ayreon, or the Flower Kings. Admittedly, those bands have done a great deal to separate the accessible facets of straight-up rock ‘n’ roll from the technical mastery the genre’s connoisseurs so crave, a flaw which not many of prog’s legends have. Rush may have “La Villa Strangiato” to its name, but it also has “The Spirit of Radio”, which is as accessible and well-written a rock song as there ever was. This separation has made contemporary prog groups more likely to falter; when Dream Theater tried its hand at affable prog metal just last year, it flopped tremendously.
The situation described above is one of the reasons why many of the artists coming out of the K-Scope label in the past few years have been so refreshing. Several of them started out in heavier genres only to then later take on the helm of what some call prog but might better be described as “art rock”, namely Anathema and Ulver. Others, such as the Oslo, Norway six-piece Gazpacho, have long experimented with atypical styles of rock and prog. Whichever camp these bands fall into, the results have all been connected by an emphasis on graceful string arrangements and exploration of space (no, not the galaxy). Anathema has done acoustic, classically-tinged reinterpretations of older material on collections like Hindsight and Falling Deeper. Ulver collaborated with the Norwegian National Opera to a powerful effect.
With LPs like March of Ghosts and now Demon, Gazpacho has put out some of the prettiest prog in recent years, one with complex arrangements that don’t assert themselves as such. By the time Demon rounds out its balanced 46 minute runtime, it’s hard to believe how much time has passed. The music truly is that seamless. There are some indicators that Gazpacho are of the “prog” ilk that elicit fears of endless guitar noodling: the sextet is named after a Spanish soup, and the deceptively catchy “The Wizard of Altai Mountain” concludes with what sounds like a Jewish folk dance—a curveball that has probably been done before on some prog LP out there. Yet whatever stereotypes one might be able to form about the group dissipate upon one serious listen to Demon. Amazingly enough, Gazpacho has managed to craft an album—a concept album, no less—that even the average indie fan could warm up to. There are times when the accordion comes into the mix and Beirut comes to mind—not a comparison one is likely to make with bands like Gazpacho.
In his interview with PopMatters, keyboardist Thomas Andersen told Jordan Blum, “[W]hen I do listen to stuff like Dream Theater, which I rarely do, it is fun to hear how amazing these guys are with their instruments. But that’s a bit like going to the circus and seeing how someone can balance 18 plates at once. It’s great, but it’s not what I’m looking for all the time.” Andersen’s comments are reflected by the compositional structure of Demon, which is relatively spartan compared to most other concept albums out there, but deliberately so. Few groups explore space the way Gazpacho does here; in multiple instances, the music cuts away, leaving only one instrument—usually a piano—to echo hauntingly. Classical musicians, more than most others, are aware of how important space is to the sound of a particular piece; a similarly deft ear is evident on Demon. Part of this likely has to do with the concept behind the record, which comes from the scribblings about a demon Andersen’s father found in a Prague apartment room in the ‘70’s. Wispy choral voices not unlike a mellotron weave in and out of these songs, creating a melancholy effect not unlike some of Porcupine Tree’s moodier tracks. By bringing space to the foreground, Gazpacho recreates the environment from which the lyrics were spawned.
The elegant string and piano arrangements throughout are kept fresh by the introduction of some interesting, at times off-kilter experimentation. (This is, however loosely or strongly, in the prog universe, after all.) Already mentioned is the folk break at the end of “The Wizard of Altai Mountain”, which opens with a hooky keyboard figure that would work on any major pop release. Closing epic “Death Room” introduces some Pain of Salvation-esque riffs along with glitchy electronics. These rarely feel like interludes, however; they’re part of the twists and turns undergone by haunted, unnamed protagonist of this story. Strings and piano form the bulk of the instrumentation, giving the music an ethereal overall feeling, which makes the punctuation of the various interstitial moments all the more compelling. Demon is a dignified recording, reaches the grandeur of a classical composition without gunning for the same tropes that most prog bands would to achieve the same. In terms of arrangement this is a symphony of restraint, but in mood and power it hits home just as well as a piece with a lot more notes. Demon does exactly what its title implies: it haunts.