As any music aficionado will tell you, emotion is a key component in good songwriting, and few bands today are able to implement it as distinctively and tastefully as Norway’s Gazpacho. Although typically isolating and bleak in context, theirs is some of the most nuanced, refined, and eerily beautiful rock music of the last twenty years (which is due in part to their array of classical timbres and influences). Theirs aesthetic is unlike any other, as is their astonishing attention to detail and conceptuality. Fortunately, their eight LP, Demon, is another masterful excursion into haunting arrangements and gripping storytelling.
I recently spoke* with keyboardist Thomas Andersen about the record, and he was more than happy to explain what Demon is about:
“I talked to my dad a couple of years ago [and] in the middle of our conversation, he said that there seemed to be this air of darkness or ill will working throughout history and in people’s lives. He [later] told me about a story he heard when he was in Prague in the 70s, about an empty apartment. No one was living in it yet someone found a manuscript about a guy who’d been stalking an evil presence. No one knew if he died or disappeared or what, but that’s what he wrote…obviously the man was crazy, but the thought of that manuscript and this guy who thought he’d found the source of this force of darkness really got to me. I went to the band and said, ‘What if we make an album which would be the diary of this guy. We’ll make the diary and imagine it and make a concept album about it. We’ll base it around evil.’
It’s [also] about this nagging feeling that I get… like I’m not good enough. It says, ‘You can’t speak French. You’ll never make it. You’re not good looking. You’re not a rock star.’ I think that that voice is another demon in my mind, and everyone has something like that. So the album is about two things: the actual fact of what we now call ‘evil,’…It’s about bad stuff happening in the world and throughout history, but also about the demons we have inside us. Hopefully, it’s designed so that you can philosophize about the concept of evil, but you can also stand up to your own demons. So that’s the long answer. The short answer is that Demon is about evil and our internal demons. Everyone has them.”
Fittingly, the album begins with sparse, mournful piano chords, which complement singer Jan Henrik Ohme’s fragile tone and melody. As always, he lives and breathes the themes he presents with chilling grace and confidence; frankly, I’ve rarely heard such a perfect match between music and vocals, which is one of the reasons Gazpacho stands out amongst its peers. He continues lamenting as strings, horns, heavy percussion, acoustic guitar, and other effects appear. The intensity fluctuates often too, showcasing excellent control over dynamics. Halfway through, the group implements an old recording of choral bellowing beneath the surface of Anderson’s subtle piano motif, creating an even more ghostly atmosphere. From there, the band builds back up to its previous chaos until lone orchestral textures and otherworldly ambience consume the final minutes. It’s a stunningly regal and heartbreaking way to start, which is exactly what Gazpacho is known for.
The middle of Demon is equally stunning. For example, “The Wizard of Altai Mountain” contains Western European instrumentation that makes it feel significantly different from its predecessor. It also concludes with a Middle Eastern jam that, like the Irish/Scottish influences on March of Ghosts, is surprisingly fitting despite its slightly incongruous nature. “I’ve Been Walking Pt. 2” is perhaps the most powerful and detailed selection, with a fury of ingenious melodic choices, as well as a few seamless ties to its precursor. The way it jumps from disordered flights of passion to distressing lullabies with expertly positioned transitions is wholly brilliant and unique. The middle section is especially striking and moving, as Ohme’s harmonies coat the reflective environment with heavenly sorrow.
The record concludes with its longest track, “Death Room.” It follows a similar trajectory as the previous three tracks, although it contains a bit more electronic manipulation. Its production is as amazing as its designs, with bursts of dissonant industrial sounds over enthralling syncopation and disturbing yet soothing patterns. It conveys a multitude of harrowing sensations, making it a potent experience for sure. At times it sounds entirely demonic, while at other times it sounds overwhelmingly angelic; in any case, it’s thoroughly riveting from start to finish, with ever-changing passages keeping listeners glued to every moment. This track (not to mention the rest of Demon) offers more philosophical enlightenment, technical bravery, and sonic splendor than most bands fit into their entire careers.
Demon is more than just an album; like every one of Gazpacho’s previous observations, it’s a work of art. There’s always something new to discover, which makes it endlessly rewarding, fascinating, and inventive. I’ve listened to Demon over a dozen times now and I’m still digging away at all of its layers, poeticisms, and innovation. It’s arguably not as accessible or easily digestible as earlier gems like March of Ghosts or Missa Atropos, but it’s probably the group’s most complex and detailed release yet. It’s another fine example how impactful, intelligent, and comprehensive music can be, and I guarantee that it will top many Best of 2014 lists come December.
*All quotes come from an interview with Thomas Anderson that will eventually be published by Popmatters.