When does an artist move from finding and owning his or her sound to being stuck in place by it?
I ask this question after listening to the latest – titled Fireworker – from Norwegian art-rock outfit Gazpacho, a band that I like but one that, I hate to admit, seems trapped in the suit they made for themselves. Their sound is orchestral and progressive, ever in shadow and melancholic, and their viewpoint of the world is…complicated.
In their music, Gazpacho sees humanity as temporary hindrances in the greater scheme of the earth. They don’t particularly say that directly, but their narratives focus on people wrestling with futility, in love, in hope, in actions, and memory. A good example is “Mary Celeste” from the 2012 record March of Ghosts, a concept record wherein each protagonist within the songs bears witness to their ultimate insignificance. The Mary Celeste was a shipping vessel found abandoned out in the ocean in 1872. The curious mystery surrounding the ship was that all of the crew, attending family, etc., were never seen or heard from again. The ship was untouched. Rooms were found like a tableau to ordinary life on a ship, frozen but not interrupted. There were no signs of a pirate attack, violence onboard, or anything. Everyone just vanished. The Gazpacho song supposes the souls of these people are stuck on (or in) the ship, trapped by legend but lost to life and eternally waiting for a rescuer to “pull them out from the walls.” This kind of storytelling is the band’s thing.
And they do it very well. March of Ghosts is a terrific if dour record. 2014’s Demon provided a look at how progressive prog-rock could be when it eschews the trappings of verse-chorus-verse song platforming. This is a talented group of performers.
But Fireworker feels even colder and more morose than usual. I read that someone classified it as being “doom prog” and at this stage, I cannot argue it. Opening with the gargantuan, nearly 20-minute “Space Cowboy,” there is an ever-present grimness to it that, previously, wouldn’t have put me off. The song gets a brief breather at the 10-minute mark where the music lightens up ever so slightly to sound not unlike In Rainbows era Radiohead, but quickly lapses back into a short doom metal burst which resets the dirge-like atmosphere. This is as close to uplift as you get from the whole of the record.
It’s kind of a stunning direction, to be honest. Even on their previous, dark-tinged records like Demon and 2015’s Molok, the group mixed things up with asides that flirted with European folk traditions and instrumentation. This is specifically true with Molok’s “Bela Kiss” and anthemic chorale “Choir of Ancestors.” Fireworker, on the other hand, has no interest in giving you a break.
It’s not to say that this is a bad record. I think that if someone picked it up, knowing it is from the prog-rock genre but wary of the all-too psychedelic and trippy sides inherent with the genre, they’d be highly impressed. Right out in front, vocalist Jan-Henrik Ohme can be sweetly menacing. He never shouts or barks. He croons, he whispers and gets under your skin that way. There is a very powerful subversion at play with him as the frontman, where lesser bands would have someone flexing histrionics and grimacing through songs.
It remains, however, that Fireworker holds a mood for so long that it brings your spirit down by the end. It is lush and expertly executed, but it has no glimpses of uplift. Not that Gazpacho needs to suddenly be the latest victim of sunny, summery poptimism – which I suspect is a series of tropes they have actively fought against being for all these years – but they do slide into their self-made tropes, without momentary differentiation to give the dark sides much more weight.
Darkness requires light – if but just a little – not only to contrast, but to illuminate to prove what’s even there. Would I recommend Fireworker to fans of the band? Oddly enough, yes, I would. Know what you are getting into. This is Gazpacho at their most elegantly morose, and not something you should choose to listen to when you need a pick-me-up.