Guapo – History of the Visitation – Cuneiform (CD + DVD) Rune 354/355, CD: 42:16; DVD: 47:04 [1/24/13] ****:
(CD: Emmett Elvin – Fender Rhodes, organ, synths, harmonium and screech guitar (track 1), horn and string arrangements (track 3); James Sedwards – bass; Kavus Torabi – guitar, santoor; David J. Smith – drum kit, percussion, additional keyboards, santoor, co-producer; Thomas Frasier Scott – soprano & alto saxophone, flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon; Dave Newhouse – baritone & tenor saxophone, bass clarinet, alto flute; Chloe Herrington – bassoon; Sarah Anderson – violin, viola; Geri McEwan – violin; Sam Morris – French horn; Emma Sullivan – trumpet; Antti UUsimaki – additional keyboards & effects, engineer, co-producer
DVD: David J. Smith – drums, percussion; Daniel O’Sullivan – Fender Rhodes, keyboards, effects, melodica; Kavus Torabi – guitar, melodica; James Sedwards – bass)
Anyone who listens to the Cuneiform label can attest to the fact the roster includes artists who willfully and deliberately craft compositions in direct opposition to most genre-oriented music. Ensembles like Univers Zéro throw out preconceived notions about terms such as progressive rock, experimental chamber music or other likeminded ideas. British instrumental quartet Guapo, formed in 1994, also follows such avant-garde viewpoints, albeit amped up and more inclined toward prog-rock. The foursome’s sound is fashioned from coordinated chaos, discordant harmony, stimulating but dark auditory shades, and graphic musical de-construction.
Guapo’s latest foray is the 42-minute History of the Visitation, which is available as CD or as limited edition vinyl: both come with a 47-minute bonus DVD with two extended live performances. This review refers to the compact disc + DVD version. Guapo’s line-up has continually been in flux: the only constant is drummer/percussionist David J. Smith. On Guapo’s ninth release, Smith is abetted by new keyboardist Emmett Elvin (who also adds guitar to one track, and arranges horns and strings); bassist James Sedwards; and guitarist Kavus Torabi. The core band is supported by five brass/woodwinds musicians (who collectively use 12 instruments); as well as viola and two violins. Engineer/co-producer Antti UUsimaki also brings in additional keyboards and effects. This sonic firepower often generates a thick wall of sound, where washes of guitar, keys, percussion, and acoustic instruments bolster, conflict, contrast and echo off of each other.
While such music is theoretical by nature, Guapo’s current material is also conceptual in details. The album is centered round the epic 26-minute suite “The Pilman Radiant.” This five-part assemblage is inspired by the short Russian science fiction book Roadside Picnic, which in turn was loosely adapted as Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 SF art film Stalker. “The Pilman Radiant” commences with a cinematic outlook highlighted by a portentous drone which edges forward in a coiled corkscrew of apprehension: otherworldly and eerie. Elvin’s moderate, exploratory Rhodes theme is eventually counteracted by Torabi’s increasingly restless guitar, and then hallucinatory, loud electronics boost the feel of anxiety. Quite suddenly, the suite changes with a simple, melodic keyboard chord strengthened by unruffled bass, guitar, and drums, akin to mid-‘70s King Crimson (Torabi mirrors Robert Fripp’s sustained six-string style). Denser moments rise up and ebb back, with the Fender and guitar occasionally appearing to fight for room, which creates an unnerved mental picture similar to the paranoia which sieves through the novel and movie which influenced “The Pilman Radiant.” While music of this maelstrom is often in the mid-channel, (Sedwards’ elevated bass, for instance, is in the foreground rather than in the background), the percussive elements have some clear panning and the jagged guitar (while heavy at times), also is layered. Those who want a taste of this marathon suite can hear a six-minute edit online.
On the other hand, the almost five-minute “Complex #7” is relatively tranquil in comparison. Here, electronic components are interlaced with atmospheric acoustic instrumentation. Bassoon and clarinet, for example, are overlaid against steely percussive effects and ambient keyboards. Overall, this also is ghostly, like the soundtrack for an apocalyptic world infected by decay and inhabited only by dead weeds and grim colorless sand. “Complex #7” is a respite, a breathing area, before Guapo once again escalates into rolling aural territory. Final number, the 11-minute “Tremors from the Future,” is fronted by an optimistic but cacophonous groove, Torabi’s mutated guitar, Smith’s shuddering, repetitive beats and Elvin’s swelling organ and Fender Rhodes. This is the closest Guapo gets to a kind of motoric, Krautrock intention which groups like Can or Magma (one of Guapo’s early heroes) used to produce. “Tremors from the Future” is a firm and intermittently harsh blast of noise, with an underlying intricacy. It gives the impression of always being near to collapse: the mood is relentless and Guapo seems to be at the brink of a breakdown which never occurs.
The DVD is a slice of Guapo history. The centerpiece is a 32-minute live rendition of “Five Suns,” recorded at Bethlehem, PA’s NEARfest show in June, 2006; the second live piece is a nearly 15-minute stage version of “King Lindorm,” from the Rock in Opposition festival held in France in April, 2007. Both feature previous keyboardist Daniel O’Sullivan, and emphasize the band’s close interaction and touring configuration. “Five Suns” is the title track of Guapo’s 2004 album, and has a deeper tonality than the studio work. While there are acoustic instruments (two melodicas are seen but barely noticed), predominantly there is a dark and bass-heavy timbre (a single bass riff is heard for most of the opening nine minutes); even when the foursome crash into a hard-hitting prog-rock climate, the keys and drums well up from a boundless pit. While the live audio is split mostly into the mid-channel, director Matt Urban vividly captures the group with fine black and white photography and a moving, multi-camera design which frames Guapo’s disconcerting music with surety and inspiration. “King Lindorm” (the title, another literary reference, is based on a Swedish folk tale about a wingless, bipedal dragon with a venomous bite) has superior sound but inferior picture quality. The single-camera video is oversaturated, a bit out of focus and shaky: probably the result of being taped by an audience member with non-professional gear. However, the audio was mixed and mastered in a post-production studio, and provides a more supple audio spectrum, with a greater measure of dynamics. “King Lindorm” comes from Guapo’s 2008 record Elixirs, and is more avant-tinted than “Five Suns,” although it, too, rushes along with a cyclic, droning groove which is accentuated by Smith’s high-energy drumming, which flits between avant-jazz and rock. Torabi’s sporadically howling guitar and Elvin’s vintage Fender Rhodes supply an ominous undercurrent. History of the Visitation is not meant for the uninitiated, but rather for fans already familiar with Guapo’s uncompromising oeuvre.
CD: The Pilman Radiant: I. Visitation, II. The Divine Vessel, III. Wriggling Magnet, IV. Mosquito Mange, V. Divine Vessel’s Reprise; Complex #7; Tremors from the Future
DVD: Five Suns; King Lindorm