The 2015 death of guitarist/singer Daevid Allen posed a significant conundrum for experimental group Gong. After all, Allen had been the band’s mastermind since its inception in 1967, and although he advised the lingering members to continue in his wake—with Knifeworld leader Kavus Torabi, who’d joined a couple of years prior, steering the ship—everyone involved was still a tad skeptical about the future of the quintet. Fortunately, 2015’s sardonic yet sentimental Rejoice! I’m Dead! proved that Gong could carry on exceedingly well as a brilliantly revitalized but respectfully familiar unit under Torabi’s watch. Likewise, its follow-up, The Universe Also Collapses, confirms that course. Slightly more abstract and less accessible than its predecessor, the LP finds Gong remaining relevant and resourceful alongside their contemporaries.
Rounded out by guitarist Fabio Golfetti, saxophonist Ian East, bassist Dave Sturt, and drummer Cheb Nettles, Gong sees The Universe Also Collapses as another pinnacle “celebration of the magick of science… bridging the worlds of lysergic exploration and quantum physics”. In particular, Torabi calls it “the ultimate psychedelic rock album”, adding that he wanted to craft the audio equivalent of a lively drug trip (as always, he succeeded). Whereas the prior outing was “a tribute of sorts” to Allen, this one “marks the dawning of a new chapter” in the group’s history of “propulsive, forward-thinking open-mindedness”. Although it’s not a narrative album, it does focus on the general theme of how time is illusory because the entire scope of existence—from “the Big Bang… [to] the inevitable collapse of the universe”—is occurring simultaneously within our own version of reality. Above all else, The Universe Also Collapses effectively upholds what Allen began while also seeing its current iteration look toward a cosmos all its own.
Nothing reaps vintage genre excellence like starting with a multifaceted epic composition, and the 20-minute opener, “Forever Reoccurring”, is precisely that. Its initial minutes can feel a bit too elongated upon introductory listens (even Torabi admits that Gong is known for “stretching a riff out” for extended periods). Yet eventual familiarity allows its otherworldly oscillations, relaxed verses, and carefree rhythms to act as a soothingly vibrant and intellectual aural blanket. Of course, it becomes more intense and intricate as it goes, with East and the guitarists colliding into delightfully flamboyant and triumphant eruptions that counter those calmer passages and evoke seminal creators like Frank Zappa, Beardfish, Phideaux, and naturally, Torabi’s other main project. It’s a charmingly mind-bending and meticulous declaration of purpose.
Expectedly, the remaining three tracks sustain that distinction. Despite its tongue-twisting name, the short “If Never I’m and Ever You” soars with bouncy, full-bodied instrumental enthusiasm and a comforting call-and-response vocal template to further solidify Gong’s knack for luminously merging its aforementioned core with bright bits of jazz, progressive rock, and even a sliver of pop. Afterward, the lengthy “My Sawtooth Wake” offers a more avant-garde and volatile—but still blissfully melodic and welcoming—journey that recalls King Crimson, Caravan, and Porcupine Tree at their most playfully colorful and dizzyingly complex.
As for closer “The Elemental”, its tranquil acoustic foundation and ceaselessly enlightened mantras (“And the elemental spirits take me for their own / And put to fire everything we’ve ever known / The dawn of history, the golden age of man / The world is ending just the same as it began”) are inherently life-affirming. Numerous timbres (including handclaps) vividly decorate and enhance each section into a captivating and involving sing-along bursting with sundry gusto, and throughout it all, Nettles and Sturt warrant special acclaim for keeping it all centered but inventive.
The Universe Also Collapses is another singular victory for Gong. While Rejoice! I’m Dead! is superior in terms of its tightly segmented variety and approachability, this record bests its precursor when it comes to adventurous scope and cohesive ambition. The quintet has once again fashions lovingly philosophical odes beneath sophisticatedly joyous arrangements that fuse the deep-rooted penchants of Allen with the thoughtful peculiarities of Torabi. Thus, The Universe Also Collapses should appeal to fans of any Gong era, as well as stylistic aficionados in general.