Massive Illusions: A Look Back at Gazpacho's 'Night' With Keyboardist Thomas Andersen
Ten years later, Gazpacho's fourth LP, Night, remains the group's best representation of isolation, reflection, and yearning.
When people think of progressive rock, they probably imagine wildly lengthy arrangements bursting with eccentric topics and virtuosic techniques. Sure, that’s apt in many cases -- most of which yield superb efforts, so it works -- yet there are also bands that prioritize celestial instrumentation and all-inclusive, genuine sentiments above all else. Acts like Anathema, Nosound, Sigur Rós, Ulver, Radiohead, no-man, Marillion, and Iamthemorning generate (to varying degrees) wonderfully textured soundscapes that, when placed behind equally touching vocals and lyrics, engulf listeners in aural journeys of gorgeous distress. Of course, each group soars in its specialized approaches, but none match the distinctive and overwhelming eloquence, intensity, and seamlessness of Norwegian quintet Gazpacho. They truly put the “art” in art rock.
Founded and still led by vocalist Jan-Henrik Ohme, guitarist Jon-Arne Vilbo, and keyboardist Thomas Andersen, Gazpacho has produced nine studio albums thus far, and each one offers an idiosyncratic blend of philosophical and psychological explorations beneath impeccably tasteful compositions that are at once subtle and magnificent. For example, 2009’s Tick Tock relates to Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “a French writer and navigator ... who took off in an attempt at a long distance flight from Paris to Saigon [in] 1935” but crashed in the desert and became stranded; 2011's Missa Atropos (a play on the word "misanthrope") tackles “themes of death, fear and loneliness”; and 2014’s Demon is based on “a manuscript about a guy who’d been stalking an evil presence... An evil will working in nature”. Both narratively and musically, Gazpacho creates luscious elegiac realms with every release.
Although each record is powerful in multiple ways, there’s little doubt that their fourth LP, 2007’s Night, still stands above the rest. A conceptual venture about “where dreams end and reality begins”, its protagonist enters memories (both real and unreal) and “sees the world from the angles of different people. He travels through time and visits places across the world... [it’s] about life and the various ways of interpreting existence.” As inherently alluring as these abstract yet applicable ideas are, what makes Night stand out most is how it’s delivered: as a 50-minute piece broken into five movements, with plenty of delicate segues and reprises making each moment feel unified, tender, and captivating. Rarely has isolation, reflection, and yearning sounded so beautiful and classy.
Oddly enough, its tongue-in-cheek working title was Groovy because, as Andersen put it when we spoke last, “it had a sort of dub music atmosphere. We thought it was too groovy for Gazpacho; we shouldn’t groove. We weren’t dance music. To hell with that, right [laughs]? We made fun of ourselves with it.” Eventually, they decided to take things more seriously and consider what they wanted the project to be, which meant making something “that wasn’t done before, if possible” since there really was “no need for any new music”. Part of that freshness came from the fact that the sequence is structured around one chord; specifically, “it’s an open G throughout the whole thing. It was weird and quirky and special.”
Night is actually Gazpacho’s first and only foray into an album-length composition. Like all of their work, though, it grew organically, with violinist Mikael Krømer introducing “[the] riff that became the continuous loop in the background” during a Friday night jam session. They started working with it until they had “a five, six, seven, eight-minute jam”, and whenever Andersen would listen to it while jogging, he’d enter “this is weird, mesmerized mood, so we talked about maybe turning it into a long album... about introspection and kind of self-hypnotism.” Also, they felt that despite never “hav[ing] a hit single in any shape or form... there was always this feeling that some people should like what we do. So, we figured that if we liked it, it was worth doing.” Essentially, the band surrendered to their intuitions and avoided overthinking their plans. In contrast to these initial carefree viewpoints, however, Andersen notes that the record “is probably [their] most worked-on LP” because of how much consideration they -- and Krømer, in particular -- put into the order, transitions, and lengths of the songs.
Unsurprisingly, Andersen notes that the cover of Night is an important part of the whole experience: “It represents the mind of the protagonist sort of floating into space. It’s just a visualization of what the album is about... It doesn’t add to the story or detract from it; it embellishes it. And it sets the mood.” As any fan knows, Gazpacho commonly uses colors to signify the personality of the music, and this LP is no different. Just as its predecessor, 2005’s Firebird (which hinted at things to come because “you could hear that [they] were playing around with a certain atmosphere”), centered on red, Night “need[s] dark blue and stars. Part of the experience is that cover and those colors. It’s a package”.
“Dream of Stone” -- which is Andersen’s favorite segment because it’s “a genius piece of music... [that’s] suited to sitting alone by a fire with a glass of wine” -- opens the work and introduces “this guy lying in bed, wondering if he’s awake or asleep, or if there is even a difference between the two.” It builds softly, with a stormy essence providing the backdrop for the aforementioned riff, various voice clips, and miscellaneous eerie effects. It’s immeasurably haunting and engrossing from the get-go, and the subsequent guitar arpeggios and pounding percussion (courtesy of Robert Johansen) only add to the sense of looming despair. Of course, Ohme’s characteristic delicateness is a crucial ingredient too, as he sounds utterly crushed while issuing poetic proclamations like “Your will is gone / Dreams will erase / You're hanging on by your fingernails / Will someone bring me back again / Night never needs a reason”.
As it progresses, more mournful layers and ethereal touches are added, including strings, acoustic guitar, and intertwining vocals, creating a glorious swamp of sublime woe. It’s damn near impossible not to get swept away in its whirlwind, which climaxes three-fourths in before dissolving into a mixture of piano phrases and crooning violin. Beneath it, however, is the continuous drum beat, and eventually it rises once more to kick off even more aggressive anguish. With about a minute left, things die down so that a few lone guitar notes can transition into a series of heartbreaking piano chords that bleed into the next track. Beyond being a devastating yet exquisite beginning to Night, “Dream of Stone” serves as a perfect example of how Gazpacho interweaves different instruments throughout its arrangements to heighten or lessen certain airs while maintaining a consistent mood.
Ohme begins “Chequered Light Buildings” alongside those piano chords, demonstrating both the power of faint emotion and how effective Night’s track transitions are. However, it’s not long before a different drum beat -- accompanied by faint keyboard churns -- appears behind them; a few moments later, strings and sharp guitar riffs join in, and it’s clear that the composition is growing to something catastrophic as Ohme cries, “If I tell you what I'm seeing / Can you tell me what is true? / In the space between our feelings / There's a place for me and you / You”. Afterward, the aural levee breaks into an entrancing explosion of string patterns, acoustic guitar strums, peppered syncopation, and ghostly wails. It’s both unnerving and serene, and it serves as a brief moment of realization before recalling its earlier chaos, as well as the guitar notes that nearly conclude “Dream of Stone”.
In addition to fitting the sonic scope of Night, “Chequered Light Buildings” continues its narrative poignantly. Andersen explains:
It’s another example of living in an unreality, or a weird version of reality. It’s about a person standing atop a skyscraper and seeing all the lights on the other skyscrapers and sensing the immense distance between him and the other people there. He’s in a completely lonesome bubble in the middle of a big city. The image of the white squares, like some people are home and some aren’t. It’s another way of talking about living in a dream.
Elaborating on the story further is “Upside Down”, the lynchpin of Night. It explores “the logic of dreams” by way of how easy it is to imagine any sort of reality, such as “walking upside down on the ceiling and winning a million dollars.” It starts with the final guitar pitches of “Chequered Light Buildings” dying off as a crushing central motif is introduced (first as a series of piercing notes and then as a more elaborate piano progression). A steady beat keeps it grounded, too, with Ohme’s angelic and intertwining laments -- “The way I see it (What do you see?) / The world is upside down (Upside down?) / Is it me? (Can it be?) / Or is it in your hands?” -- complemented by an assortment of “rock 'n' roll” instrumentation and various classical touches.
The way his voice moves around the rest of the band is among the track’s most distinctive and fascinating attributes; you really get a sense of internal conflict from him. In general, the song keeps a comparatively straightforward and consistent trajectory until about two minutes from the end, when it fades away as another synthesis of gloomy violin uproars, starry keyboard murmurs, and bird calls (evoking a passage from “Dream of Stone”) melt into a folky acoustic guitar arpeggio that acts as a segue into the penultimate phase, “Valerie’s Friend”.
Interestingly, the Celtic guitarwork that steers “Valerie’s Friend” hints at what was to come with 2012’s March of Ghosts. Structurally, it’s probably the most conventional song on Night, with fiery contributions from Vilbo and Johansen, plus menacing verses leading to a very catchy and pained chorus (“How small is your life? / Is it too small to notice? / Is anywhere better than here? / A journey inside a black and white postcard / Discover that colours were there / Burning out / Burning out”). Ohme really shows passion and range here, and his narrative is relatively direct, too.
Rather than deal with abstract musings, it’s inspired by Valerie Solanas, a popular feminist author in the '60s who “was in love with Andy Warhol and then shot him. She didn’t kill him instantly, but he died from complications about six months after that... It’s another example of being in a different reality because she was sort of a stalker.” It maintains its eloquent, in-your-face attitude for the majority of its length; however, it closes with another orchestral section that’s focused most on reviving and embellishing the haunting atmosphere that began the record. In fact, its final seconds incorporate the opening riff of “Dream of Stone”, suggesting that Night is coming full circle.
The final chapter, “Massive Illusion”, is everything a grand finalé should be. At first, it’s essentially a reprisal of how the sequence began but with an additional heartbreaking melody that takes center stage. Ohme issues ominous decrees via silky smooth insights while light yet effective musicianship is matched with industrial surfaces and more voice clips to back him up. It culminates into a tribal, clap-along arrangement as he sings his rustic chorus; there are also sharp guitar chords to add punches to his words. Next, he channels his most heavenly tone to sing, “When your will is gone and dreams will erase / When you're hanging on by your fingernails” as strings and guitar arpeggios move around him.
From there, a dominant guitar riff signals marching percussion and swelling textures as antagonisms like “Freed from the chains of what has remained / Of a life that you don't want to know” and “Celebrate ages / All life stages / Seas and the winds and the clouds / The message's been written / From your prison / See what tomorrow will be” pour over the main rhythm of “Dream of Stone”. Similarly, the bulk of “Massive Illusion” dies off as the remaining few minutes are filled with a reprise of the opener’s piano and violin sequence (which serves as yet another way to connect the dots that have already been laid out). Once that’s finished, listeners are left with static and traffic sounds to symbolize how the protagonist, like the audience, has “woken up after a long journey”. It’s like a subtle exhale to discharge the last 50 minutes of intense inhalation.
Gazpacho is one of few modern bands whose music is truly a work of art, and no other entry in their catalog exemplifies this as well as 2007’s Night. Nearly every moment is a breathtaking representation of isolation, reflection, and yearning, and the ways in which the group both interweaves passages from movement to movement and provides everlasting links back home (like a skewer in a Shish kebab) is ingenious. Likewise, Ohme has never sounded more poetic, fragile, and incensed than he does here, transcending the role of mere singer by giving a near Shakespearean performance to some of the band’s best songwriting. As with all one-of-a-kind creations, though, it’s difficult to do justice to Night in words -- and I no doubt sound a bit hyperbolic here -- so the only way to fully see why the album is a masterpiece is to hear it for yourself (below). Once you do, you’ll never forget it.