Issue 2012-009: Gazpacho - March Of Ghosts - Round Table Review
Gazpacho – March Of Ghosts
Tracklist: Monument (2:06), Hell Freezes Over I (5:45), Hell Freezes Over II (4:36), Black Lily (4:58), Gold Star (4:15), Hell Freezes Over III (2:36), Mary Celeste (5:43), What Did I Do? (4:19), Golem (5:10), The Dumb (4:33), Hell Freezes Over IV (6:10)
John O'Boyle's Review
Gazpacho has score high again on my essential listening list. 2010’s Missa Atropos saw the band really hitting their stride and 2012’s March Of Ghosts for me steps up the ante.
There is no mistaking the bands sound and approach that does take reference from Marillion, Radiohead and the quieter acoustic end of Anathema which isn’t a bad thing and in all honesty does not detract from the power or creative statement the band have offered up.
Musically the band isn’t going to break any records for notes per second, intricate musical passages that offer that immediate orgasmic wow factor. The band has been much smarter than that, where less is more, gaining those orgasmic feelings in a differing manner and that’s the cleverness of this album. Intrinsically the subtle melodramatic melodic melancholic approach just has so much character, it is unbelievable. It screams out to be nurtured as wave after wave of emotive and electric atmospherics engulf you, an outpouring of quality that is presented with lavish and unrestrained extravagance. That is how albums should be created.
Sedate and intelligence is the bands mandate which allows the listener time and opportunity to really become involved allowing their creative juices to permeate through your body as Jan Henrik Ohme and company delve into a dark disturbing world.
The musical soundstages work on so many differing levels, the ethereal and haunting Hell Freezes Over offers its crescendo’s over a four part movement that incorporates some spine tingling folk passages, a theme that is used so effectively throughout the whole album. Even the harder sounding fourth movement brings extra manna to the table making a fitting closure to their perfect journey.
All this is punctuated with the rather stunning Black Lily and Gold Star, both of which are subtle and unassuming, layered masterpieces. Mary Celeste’s almost metallic approach is complemented but an atmospheric dalliance of Scottish Reel that paves the way for the delectable vocals of What Did I Do that is just embodied with atmospherics that are to die for. Even the menacing Golem which is another prime example of the bands cleverness offers an approach of resignation, serene and majestic word play, a song that features some rather stunning guitar playing.
The Dumb is for me the most mundane track here and that is not meant as a negative statement as in the hands of these craftsmen, it doesn’t become an insipid piece of music, it just gives forth its mature character as an offerance to those who want to take part.
I am not too sure what the album artwork is trying to say, but one thing that is for sure is that the disturbing, dark and twisted portrait really creates another platform for the songs to breathe.
This is an album that is definitely not going to disappoint, an album that is only going to see their fan base grow and as a musical composition it comes highly recommended.
Roger Trenwith's Review
Probably unlike the others in this collective review, I am a relative newcomer to Norway’s Gazpacho. They are one of those bands of whom I have been aware of for ages but never investigated, until last year’s double live album London which I thought would be a good place to start, as it proved. Also, the fact they are on Brit prog label de jour Kscope, a label that is normally a byword for quality had a lot do with my aural enquiries. I won’t say that London made me drop my pint in awe, but it has been revisited more than few times, as Gazpacho are a band more than capable of creating some great mood pieces, usually of the downer variety. What is it about Scandinavian prog bands and their deft touch with a depressing soundscape? It must be the extremes of sunlight and corresponding wild fluctuating vitamin D swings up there that’s all I can conclude!
So, what of March Of Ghosts? Our review copy is a FLAC download pre-release and apparently “unmastered” not that you’d guess, for the sound is awesome.
March Of Ghosts although not a concept album per sé is a collection of stories revolving around “ghosts” be they ephemeral or living or just memories. The album was mostly recorded over one weekend after the band had just completed a tour, firing on all cylinders. It’s still a feat that is hard to imagine, and initially was apparently taped as one piece, then split into songs, with the vocals added afterwards. You can find out more by listening to Andy Read’s DPRP Radio Show with founder member and guitarist Jon Arne Vilbo. Suffice to say that this short burst of creativity has left us with an album that for a Gaz-novice like me was not an instant hit, but is now being played to death.
Undoubted star of the show is singer Jan Henrik Ohme whose powerful but not overpowering voice is the icing on the impressive layer cake of sound created by the band. If comparisons must be made, and I’m sure he knows what’s coming now, imagine a less strained Thom Yorke crossed with Mark Hollis and you wouldn’t be too wide of the mark. His accent lends the English vocals a further distinctive feature. Yep, I’m quite impressed by the flexing of tonsils on offer here; this is “proper” singing without a growl in sight thank goodness.
The concept and the lyrical ideas were largely the work of Thomas Andersen (keyboards) and Jan Henrik. Not a concept album, but a series of short stories featuring amongst others war criminals, haunted ships, and traitors eaten up by conscience, March Of Ghosts covers themes ranging from being haunted by one’s past – “Dark sails cruise through these waters in the fog of memory” (Hell Freezes Over I), a theme carried over to HFO II which is a poetic tour-de-force – “I sometimes hear the choir of screams in other worlds where mothers grieve” being a fine example of the high standard of writing on offer, to introspection, isolation and loss, depression and redemption. Book the therapy appointment now!
Sad and utterly lovely, and currently my favourite song on the album, depression and loss are our companions on the darkly marvellous Black Lily, hopefully to be healed by a kiss – “I just want to make you laugh again in that deep hollow dungeon".
Given a working title of Morning, Mary Celeste cleverly uses allegorical connections to the story of the Mary Celeste where the haunted ship is a parallel to an introverted protagonist with a personality that is fading to invisibility, who sees a morning as yet another in an endless procession – “This today is such an endless doorway to other days on a broken chain” and “When they found us on the water they didn't see our faces”. Our hero hopes to be redeemed by true love – “You can say anything, you see it sparkles when you speak to me”. Nope, this ain’t a happy place, but then this is Gazpacho, so you weren’t expecting happy dance choons were you? Ironically though, this one ends with an Irish jig!
Probably the saddest song of all is The Dumb which on the surface is a story of trying very very hard to love something imperfect and failing. I say this is the saddest song, but it does have rather a lot of competition.
The accented English of Jan Henrik takes a bit of getting used to, and it is hoped that the lyrics are to be included with the released CD, as this writing deserves to be fully understood. It’s not often I get into the lyrics of an album so deeply, but in my ‘umble opinion they are by far the most important constituent of the record, and there is some real poetry here. This is not an album to make you smile, but, in the same way that those fools who think that Leonard Cohen is depressing, a conclusion along those lines is missing the point entirely. The lyrics here are merely shining a light, albeit a black light, at an introverted corner of the world that more folk than would care to admit it inhabit or have inhabited at some point in their lives. Come on, we’ve all been there at one stage in our lives have we not? Sad songs can just as easily be illuminative, redemptive and uplifting as depressing, and that’s how I find them here.
Right, that’s the cod psychology out of the way. What, I hear you cry, of the music? Well, I suspect that at least 90% of you lucky people reading this are fans of the band and know what to expect, so this next thesaurus attack is for the other 10%, if you’re still reading!
The music is highly emotive and atmospheric symphonic neo-prog rock but without a lot of the cliché that bedevils the genre. A unique twist on the sound is what you’ll find here, without overloud keyboards dominating as is the stock in trade of lesser bands than this. Much use is made of layered vocals and slightly reverbed guitars, soloing is kept to a barely noticeable minimum, and the keyboards create an otherworldly atmosphere. Mournful symphonic soundscapes, sometimes vast, sometimes sparse, laced with real strings (for once) combine with glacial piano and a variety of plucked and strummed and chorded strings and guitars to create sweeping Bergman-esque cinematic vistas.
Black Lily is a mournful ballad of epic proportions, a definite “lighters in the air moment”, Gold Star is a mini symphony replete with what sounds like synthesised tuba towards the end, I kid you not. Mary Celeste ends with an Irish jig that fits like a glove. Golem employs quiet tribal rhythms over ghostly piano, and after the guitar comes in sounds like something from the Peter Gabriel canon. Hell Freezes Over IV starts off as the most conventionally "prog" song here, and as such is a bit of a let down, what with its generic powerchords. Almost as if they realise the song could be heading for cliché territory it is redeemed in the final third with a return to the darkly ambient symphonia that is their trademark.
On first hearing this album largely failed to make an impression, but subsequent listens, particularly to the outstanding lyrics has led me to believe that this will probably still be in my top five albums of the year come December. To sum up, “There's a rose that grows in no-man's land and it's wonderful”.
Mark Hughes' Review
Gazpacho seemed to be hotly tipped contenders for end of year plaudits if the reactions of some of my fellow team members to March Of Ghosts are anything to go by. Not being all that familiar with the band, having only recently dipped my toes in the band's catalogue by purchasing the London live album, I have limited investment in the group, and limited exposure to their impressively consistent series of recommended previous releases. No doubt my colleagues will expound on how this album stacks up against previous releases so I will proffer my offerings from the level of the 'uninitiated' if you will. Things start off well with the orchestrated instrumental Monument before delving into the first instalment of Hell Freezes Over. The song has all the right components, passionate, if not all that dynamic, vocals; fiddly persistent guitar line, layers of keyboards making various noises and intermissions of screeching, if pushed backed in the mix, electric guitar. Yes, the components are there but somehow the individual parts are greater than the whole. The same feeling continues into Hell Freezes Over II; it would be false to say it was boring, but to me it just seems to try too hard to be epic, like the inclusion of the uillean pipes. By Black Lily I have the feeling that it is one unrelenting dirge, which is only partly relieved by the acoustic 'jig' intro to Gold Star that promises to pull things above the mire.
One of the problems I have is the constantly even tone of the singer. No qualms about his abilities to hit the right notes, which he does with aplomb, but it is the timbre and the lack of an over-riding soaring melody to reach out and grab one by the throat. The somewhat livelier ending of Gold Star returns to the dirge with Hell Freezes Over III and frankly by this time my interest, even after repeated listening, is on the wane. The (false) first chorus of Mary Celeste offers a modicum of respite but it is all too short and untempered by the sad cellos and violins that had the potential to add gravitas but are pushed asunder for a more entrenched jig. Not having any lyrics as a guide, the concept of the album (for a concept album is surely what it must be) is lost on me and the meaning of the Irish-interjections are somewhat bewildering, particularly as I believe the Mary Celeste was actually an American ship discovered abandoned near Spain. What Did I Do? is a droning dirge although a change to a more up-beat rhythmical, if not vocal, tempo on Golem is welcome and actually gets quite interesting with the introduction of the electric guitars mid way through. The Dumb is back to more of the same as earlier and is largely indistinguishable from several other tracks. The album is rounded off with the final part of Hell Freezes Over (part four if you're counting) and by the end of it I am none the wiser about anything.
In all honesty I simply don't get this album at all. Although nothing is inherently wrong with it, in many ways it is quite a mature album, but it simply lacks anything that I can find memorable (apart from the jig which is more of an annoyance than anything). Overall it was somewhat bland for my ears and my tastes and I can best describe it as like listening in monochrome.
André De Boer's Review
Life’s lessons teach us it is best to address bad news at the very beginning. So I bring you the bad news right now: Gazpacho’s new album March Of Ghosts is utterly beautiful. This does not sound bad to you? Well, it should. The thing is I am used to this band delivering excellent albums and jawdropping live performances. I’ve seen them live four times now, plus one more to come soon. The first time I encountered them I did not know anything about these Norwegians and their music. But after two minutes or so I was blown away and sold. Now, some years later, I was obviously thrilled by the idea of listening to this brand new Gazpacho album. Which in fact is as beautiful as ever, but –yes, here’s the but coming-, it is also exactly the same as ever. Nothing new tried here, no excitement. The same line of music, as if these songs belong to one of their previous recordings. The band teases us with this contradiction right away from the first note. With the first song Monument they ask us ‘is this album a monument or not?‘. They’ve delivered some monumental albums for sure. But no, this one isn’t.
Okay, there is a horn added somewhere in Gold Star. Sky (Herbie Flowers) did exactly the same in the previous millennium. And there is some folk music added in three songs. Which is like hearing yet another Mostly Autumn recording; one of these folk songs, Gold Star, is even named like the usual MA vocabulary, with a colour in the song title… In my humble opinion being progressive means you do not stick to the repetitive and old. You investigate new ways to make yourself and your audience stay interested and wants to hear more. Without selling your soul that is, of course. Okay, maybe what Gazpacho brings us has to be defined as artrock rather then progressive rock really. Nevertheless, they repeat themselves now. The more I listen to it, the more I hear complete traces of songs out of their back catalogue. I am intrigued as well as disappointed. Yes I do enjoy the ambient atmosphere, the extremely high quality and the lot. Every song has a dark lining though, I just can’t help being reminded about that at every spin.
In an impressive series of albums this band successfully succeeded in improving their quality over and over again. This album makes no exception on this. It is amazingly beautiful. Really. However they did not manage to cope with improving on originality. When I honestly listen to March Of Ghosts I hear the virtual bonus CD of the Missa Atropos or Tick Tock set. No inventiveness other than some dull added MA and Sky gimmicks. Maybe my expectations were too high. Hell Freezes Over I has this typical Gazpacho small and simple riff that is repeated without getting boring. How do they manage to do that? The same riff reappears in Hell Freezes Over IV. Fantastic but a copy of their own technique used in, for example, Vera from the Missa Atropos album.
In my humble opinion Golem is by far the best song of the album. Very Gazpacho, yet with more extremes and it even is a bit eclectic. What is offered musically are apparently simple basic structures beautifully, all hand carved to extraordinary songs. Together with the ever intriguing voice of Jan Henrik Ohme, Gazpacho definitely has built their own distinctive style and audience. It is clear that I am torn apart between this high quality treasure chest named March Of Ghosts and my latent reluctance against boredom. Do I want to cherish this album or not. An unfair struggle, as after a dozen or more listens these Norwegian spin doctors evidently show they know how to crush one’s resistance. And seduce you after all.
My doubts are still there, inadvertently. And these doubts will keep on knocking on my skull, realising that I longed for some real striking change in style. So I hope Gazpacho will get the desired progressiveness into their next offspring in the future. Luckily they are a very productive band so I’ll wait and see.
Think Golem guys, please. And expand from there…
Dave Baird's Review
Gazpacho's last studio offering, Missa Atropos, left me cold. Despite multiple listenings I couldn't get into it at all and was very disappointed given that I consider the previous two releases, Night and Tick-Tock, to be masterpieces of the chill-Prog sub-genre. Some apprehension then as I played March of Ghosts for the first time that literally turned to pure pleasure as the disc progressed, even in the opening seconds I'd say, such is the wonderful atmosphere that descends in the opening track, Monument - a dense, otherworldly mist that lingers, clinging to the musical landscape until the dying notes.
Atmosphere is a key word along with melancholy as one is transported to a winter's day somewhere in the frozen North. For fifty minutes (yes, not long by Prog standards) we're treated to a chilly tirade of loss and regret as we find ourselves accosted with the sad tales from the sorrowful ghosts. The stories are varied, the lyrics intelligent, intriguing, even biographical in places. And then there are the melodies. Of course Gazpacho always dish-up a nice tune, but there are some very special moments here, the vocal melody on Hell Freezes Over III in particular just makes me melt every time I hear it, my only criticism is that it seems a little short, they could have strung it out a little more, but it's utterly and devastatingly beautiful.
What Did I Do? is another stand-out track with it's brushed-drums, double-bass, mellow guitar, P.G. Wodehouse sound byte and strong melodies. Talking of bass, Kristian Torp's playing is one of the highlights for me on the whole album and never more so than on the wonderful Black Lily. A resplendent song in it's own right, the brooding, prominent, distorted bass in the chorus really sets-off the vocal lines. Jan-Henrik's vocals are of course one of the most unique features of the band, one couldn't imagine Gazpacho without them. Not only has he a very distinctive voice (although I always find it quite similar to a-ha's Morten Harket), but his timing and phrasing is that little bit different from the average and this particularly shines in Golem, with the vocals coming in just that little bit later than one expects.
Gazpacho have given us a gem of an album that ravishes the ears for its duration. Perhaps one could argue that they've not really stepped-out of their comfort zone as essentially they're plagiarizing themselves throughout. Is that such a bad thing though? They've crafted their own style, and sound like no-one else, why shouldn't they capitalise on that? I for one think they've struck gold with this little masterpiece and I've been in love with it since the first listen. A real treat for Gazpacho fans and newcomers alike!