Music

Gazpacho: Demon

Tastefully arranged, melodically gorgeous, and refreshingly unpretentious, Norwegian art rockers Gazpacho have crafted a stunning concept album with Demon, a record that even those with serious prog allergies will find approachable.


Gazpacho

Demon

Label: K-Scope
US Release Date: 2014-04-01
UK Release Date: 2014-03-17
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"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.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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