When a band breaks out the gong and uses it (with nary a hint of irony) numerous times throughout the first four minutes of a 46-minute proggy "suite", you know it ain't kidding around. You begin preparing yourself for some serious jazz odyssey indulgences, set to music as humorless as the day Radiohead learns of Tony Blair's reelection. But I won't harp on the gong. Five Suns, the new album by British instrumental trio Guapo, offers plenty of other things to harp on.
Guapo frightened me at first: its ominous sludge riffs, dank atmospherics, and Halloween synth tones sound like the soundtrack that the beetle army from The Dark Crystal would play to psych itself up before sacrificing one of the childlike elfin heroes. The chimes, the cascading cymbal rolls, the electric piano noodlings, the eerie electronic tones -- pity a fog machine isn't included in the album's packaging. As the music gradually made its shift from devilish to more of a hard rock drone attempt to recreate Bitches Brew, I too grew less fearful and resigned myself to playing the part of sponge, soaking up the characterless playing, the colorless sonic template, the inconsolable blah that is Five Suns.
The bulk of Five Suns is its titular piece, a five-part suite that takes up most of the album's 60+ minute runtime. Its focus is mainly on the minimalist bombast of electric pianos (Daniel O'Sullivan), bass (Matt Thompson) and drums (Dave Smith), shifting through multiple repetitive riffs and vamps. There's always this feeling of an impending doom, as all the grooves are mid-tempo, methodical, and constantly ballooning up to overblown cacophony. Guapo has been compared to other grandiose prog-rock acts like King Crimson, but this trio seems exhausted of ideas before they even begin to paint the canvas black. The simple repetitions employed by both the bass and keyboard aren't necessarily interesting; whereas other minimalist outfits like Tortoise can expose beauty and secrets beneath a restated melody, Guapo allows no room to breathe, to explore, to dissect. The "Five Suns" piece is almost like a practice jam session caught on tape, with all the players stoned on some medieval weed, content to smother the tape in mucky maelstroms. Smith works overtime on the drum kit, populating the tracks' back pockets with a gaggle of tom and cymbal fills, often saturating the songs with a wind tunnel of intensity.
At times I expected the men in expressionless masks from Eyes Wide Shut to come crawling out of the speakers, heads banging to the primordial beat. Other times, it seemed fitting to dub the band the Count Dracula Project. "Five Suns" touches on Joe Zawinul-tingled Rhodes action, mythic orchestral overtones, and horror movie organ grinds, but it never really feels dangerous or captivating.
Five Suns' other two tracks, the Rhodes/harmonium-driven "Mictlan" and the spinning web "Topan", are slightly more effective. Without having to bear the weight of being attached to a "suite", the songs exist nicely as individual experiments. "Mictlan" feeds off a 1970s cop show high-hat flutter and features some more active, adventurous performances; unfortunately, the melodies and ideas offered are barely raised above the low bar set by the preceding 46 minutes. "Topan" briefly comes alive with the aid of some organic textures and an interesting revolving theme. Achieving this kind of a moment seems to be like catching a firefly in a bottle to a band like Guapo: glimpses of satisfaction are elusive things indeed.
To place them next to contemporary company, Guapo seems to be stuck somewhere between the plate tectonics of Tortoise and the space prog of the Mars Volta. Problem is, Guapo isn't as quietly engaging or spontaneously extroverted as either of those other bands. Beyond the connotations it implies, beyond the images it conjures and the jokes it provokes, Five Suns is simply bland, the sound of making noise and saying nothing.