What’s to like?
Norwegian art rockers lift off with album number ten, and remind us that beautiful moments are all too fleeting, with a collection of songs that may well become the band’s defining release.
The low down
Gazpacho are one of those bands who put out an album every couple of years, with little fanfare and precious few live gigs to back it up, and yet the music still finds its loyal audience.
Soyuz is album number ten from this quietly understated Norwegian group, who initially started out almost as a facsimile of Marillion, whom they have supported on several occasions. While Gazpacho have always written their own material and grown as a band in their own right, I felt at times that they were just a little too much in thrall to Marillion’s dreamy and relaxed style of music, with singer Jan Henrik Ohme clearly influenced by Steve Hogarth’s laidback mumble-prog approach to vocalising the lyrics around the song arrangements.
Still, Marillion’s patronage hasn’t done them any harm as it gave Gazpacho a groundswell of fans at an early stage in their career and has probably helped sustain them for the first few albums, until they signed to Kscope in 201o, and benefitted from the support of a label that could promote them to a wider audience.
That’s how I came to reappraise them, as I’d been a little underwhelmed when I saw the band support Marillion in 2005, and it was the release of their first Kscope album Missa Atropos that interested me in giving them a second chance. Since then, I’ve bought the four albums that have followed, and backtracked through the earlier albums as they were reissued by the same label.
They’re a band that I sometimes really enjoy, and other times I find them a little bland and indulgent as songs and singer ramble on, seemingly without focus or structure. I guess they’re one of those acts where you have to be in the zone to want to hear them – I’m sure you all have bands that you feel similarly about.
So as Soyuz arrived, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, it’s always good to have new music to try out, but on the other hand would the band sustain my attention or would I drift off?
Well, cutting to the chase, this might be the best album Gazpacho have released so far! Right from the opening notes, I could feel that the band had come up with something different. The sound mix seemed clearer and more direct, and each instrument seemed to have more presence and identity, as well as dovetailing neatly into the overall sound.
It’s not a radical change for the band, and if you’re familiar with them already, then you’ll quickly be reassured by the patient pacing of the music, and Ohme’s lilting voice. Every note and beat feels carefully thought out and forms part of the big jigsaw, and yet there are interesting twists and turns throughout each song, even on the shorter ones.
For those of you wondering what it all sounds like, here’s a nice extract, accompanied by a lovely video, for the all too brief Exit Suite:
If that tempts you, then you’ll find lots more to enjoy within the rest of the album.
This time around, the melodies seemed stronger, more poignant and memorable, and having previously felt a little detached with Gazpacho’s albums, I was surprised at how deeply engaged I felt with this one. This was particularly the case with the two parts of the title track, a true story about a doomed Cosmonaut who makes the journey knowing that he’s unlikely to return alive. (The capsule crashed back to earth, and the pilot Komarov was killed as the parachute failed to open.)
Cleverly, the band introduce the story with a short track Soyuz One, to open the album, and then hold off on the conclusion until several tracks later, when the second part Soyuz Out takes on a larger persona, running for thirteen minutes and fully exploring the imagined thoughts and feelings of the Cosmonaut. Neither clichéd nor melodramatic, but simply and quietly haunting, I could feel the dignified resignation of the pilot in the cold emptiness of space, as his capsule gradually began its fateful descent back to earth , and a terrible sadness at his sacrifice as the song fades out.
Gazpacho are skilled in putting together longer songs, but I think this is the first time that I found myself savouring every little moment and sound. Music as metaphor perhaps, as the themes of Soyuz were born from the idea of how beautiful moments pass and cannot be “saved for later”, so within Soyuz are interconnected tales of people and lives “frozen in time”.
The album clocks in at a reasonable 47 minutes, and within the eight tracks there’s enough variety of tempo and ambience giving the listener plenty to go on, but not overdoing it. The ‘frequency drift’ that I’ve experienced on previous albums has been tightened up here, and the band sound decidedly more focussed, even rocking it up in some sections, cutting the guitar some overdue freedom on the likes of Hypomania.
I also thought the keyboards sounded a little more varied on this album, but the piano is still the dominant instrument, and the band still apply the same eclectic array of instruments, such as violin and accordion, to their distinctive sound.
After my first listen on the hi-fi, and I quietly put the album to one side to gather my thoughts, not wanting to rush back into it. But repeated listens on the headphones have drawn me deeper each time; it’s a gift that Gazpacho have in making music that is easy to pick up on first hearing it, but rewards greater dividends with time and patience. And it’s an album that sounds best when it’s listened to as a complete recording, rather than spotlighting individual tracks.
Just as I thought the band were beginning to settle into a comfort zone cul-de-sac, they’ve quietly overturned my expectations and come up with an album that I think will stand the test of time as one of their best. It has everything that Gazpacho fans have come to enjoy through the previous albums, but it’s also an excellent introduction for newcomers, with music that is gently accessible and direct on first listen, but which also reveals new layers on each successive visit.
A highly recommended, out of this world experience.