Twenty years! Really? For around twenty years Gazpacho have been playing their atmospheric and affecting art-rock. Possibly initially branded (Hogarth) Marillion copyists, and in a sub-genre increasingly full of wonderfully moody, ornate, and emotional artists, this Norwegian band has retained a level of exquisitely deep resonance and hypnotic introspection.
Ten studio LPs in, still full of metaphysical ponderings, expressive vocals, and meticulously arranged bittersweet orchestral nuances and bombastic rock accentuations, they’ve constantly provided intense examination of the human condition, drawing out those deeper, hidden emotions.
If Gazpacho remain unknown to some people, here’s a bit of context. Live, there are three albums that show their ability to perform: 2010’s A Night at the Loreley, 2011’s London, and 2015’s Night of the Demon. They’ve played festivals such as Be Prog! My Friend, Night of the Prog, Midsummer Prog Festival, and
Cruise to the Edge. On studio record, 2018’s Soyuz has been most recently praised and their albums are constantly widely and positively acknowledged.
So they aren’t fly by night, by any means. In fact they’ve a bit of a reputation to maintain and uphold. Conceptually, the album follows the band’s tradition of blending grand philosophical quandaries, stimulating literary leanings, and smothering it with haunting personal turmoil. In a way, it draws on and ties together themes and techniques of earlier collections, whether the fatalistic isolation of Night and Missa Atropos; the ill-fated narrative drama of Tick Tock and Soyuz; or the hefty theological/scientific contemplations of Demon and Molok. Beyond that, its central premise is that humanity has always been—
and always will be—controlled by an ageless, infallible, and omniscient creature determined to propagate at any cost.
Keyboardist Thomas Andersen elucidates: “It’s like when you slip on ice and straighten yourself out before you even know that you’re slipping. It’s like someone took control over you. . . .There’s an instinctual part of you that lives inside your mind, separate from your consciousness. I call it the ‘Fireworker’ or the ‘Lizard’ or the ‘Space Cowboy.’ They’re all the same name for that other entity that’s been an unbroken lifeforce since the beginning of life. It’s survived every generation; it’s procreated successfully, with a new version in each of us. It’s evolved alongside our consciousness, and it can override us and control all of our actions.”
He continues by explaining that in order to get us to do what it wants, the “Fireworker” will silence the parts of our mind that feel disgust or remorse, such as responses to sexual and violent tendencies, so that we’re unable to stop it. The conscious part of our mind, Andersen notes, will actually “rationalize and legitimize” those thoughts and actions so that we never discover the “Fireworker” behind-the-scenes. No matter how we feel about ourselves in terms of identity, accomplishments, and value, we’re all just vessels—or “Sapiens”—that the creature uses until it no longer needs us, leaving us to die as it moves onto the next generation to sustain its purpose. “If you play along,” Andersen clarifies, “it’ll reward you like a puppy and let you feel fantastic; if you don’t, it’ll punish you severely.” Likewise, if our main personality fails to comply, Andersen theorizes, the entity will just create a new one that will.
What a concept….
Fireworker also harkens back to Night in that it’s a single “trip,” or piece of music, that’s broken into five chapters but meant to be appreciated all at once. Whereas that fourth record saw Gazpacho’s recurring protagonist venture into the minds and memories of different people, this one is a one-on-one investigation of a single psyche engaged in a Bergman-esque confrontation with the “Fireworker.”
Got all that?
Along the way, the band stick to their penchant of reworking established musical aesthetics so that they feel fresh and exciting. For instance, they employ a threateningly imperial choir to warn the main character against “poking around the lair of the animal.”
Fascinatingly, the sextet didn’t originally plan to follow-up Soyuz with that concept. Instead, Andersen reveals, they were going to put their spin on Little Eyolf, Henrik Ibsen’s beloved 1894 play about “a couple whose newborn son falls off of a table, becomes crippled, and then dies, leaving the couple to start fighting over how they didn’t really love him.” Filmmaker Lars von Trier had previously adapted the tale into 2009’s Antichrist—with mixed results—so ultimately, the band felt that “it wasn’t’ really our story, so we weren’t as committed or fruitful with it.”
Thankfully, “everything fell into place easily” once they decided to focus on a wholly original new direction. After all that background conceptualisation, onto the album.
‘Fireworker’ declares its mesmeric intent to dominate right away in “Space Cowboy,” a side-long suite whose instrumental allusion to Firebird’s “Orion” and elegiac lyricism (“The parasite / That lives in me / Murders words / From where I stop / And it breathes in / We’re biting our tail / The cycle
begins”) place it up among Gazpacho’s best compositions. The choral interludes are intensely majestic and ominously oppressive to suit the mood. From a heartbreakingly delicate first movement, a chaotic centerpiece, through to its mournfully symphonic penultimate phase and finally a thunderous outro, it’s a veritable masterpiece, cementing how vibrant, evocative, and imaginative they remain after all these years. It is an impressive start to the album.
“Hourglass” is a gorgeous piano ballad that evokes March of Ghosts in its fusion of welcoming melodies and gentle choral and orchestral flourishes. Sentiments such as “He is here / It’s his machine / Controls my life / He’s right in everything / He’s always been” propel the narrative forward. It’s round about here you understand the aforementioned references to Marillion – Jan-Henrik Ohme ‘s naturally melancholic voice. And, it’s similarly misunderstood, as uplifting emotions can be equally as powerful, as demonstrated here. All too briefly in this case.
So to the initially exotic, building momentum, feisty layering and catchy hooks of “Fireworker.” It’s an intense package, packing much into a shorter song framework.Then, “Antique” takes over with an angelic mystery, stuttering, fluttering, strutting and driving the highs and lows of a compelling tragic tale of “a thousand generations” that “never had control.”
All too soon, the closing track is upon us. “Sapien”. Echoing the dynamic range and epic scope of “Space Cowboy,” it is a spectacular finale of luscious arrangements, compelling musical soundscapes, muscular strength and poignant existential thought.
Powerful. Intense. Compelling. Just a few of the words that have repeated in my head as I’ve listened to this masterwork.
I need a lie down.
Thomas Andersen – keyboards, programming
Jan-Henrik Ohme – vocals
Jon-Arne Vibo – guitars
Mikael Krømer – violin, additional guitars
Kristian “Fido” Torp – bass
Robert R Johansen – drum