One night when I was 17-years-old and voraciously devouring every piece of music I could get my hands on, I bought myself a King Crimson album. I only had the vaguest notion of what “prog-rock” was, and my curiosity about all things musical at that age demanded satiation. Sadly, one listen to the album left me confused and not particularly eager to travel down that road again.
Nearly a decade later, I’ve become a little savvier on what prog-rock entails, and I decided to give it another shot, this time in the form of the English group Guapo and their latest album, Elixirs. Guapo, currently made up of multi-instrumentalist Daniel O’Sullivan and percussionist David J. Smith, has picked up the baton from groups like Magma and the Ruins, making albums dense with every bit of excessive musical frippery you might expect from a band who named one of their albums “Great Sage, Equal of Heaven.” Take a look at the bio on their website; phrases like “a sun forged in sound” and “transfixed like prey engulfed in a tiger’s roar” let you know what this band is all about. It might seem a bit silly—after all, this is the genre that gave us a musical version of the King Arthur saga…on ice(!)—but if you can take it with the same deadly seriousness as Guapo themselves do, it makes the listening experience a whole lot easier.
Opening track “Jeweled Turtle” gets things off to an expectedly downbeat start, with a flurry of cymbals introducing menacing keyboards, angry, warlike drums, and screeching violins that immediately bring to mind Godspeed! You Black Emperor. After a few minutes, a gently picked acoustic guitar and cymbal crashes bubble up, then an electronic hissing switches things up again and we’re treated to what sounds like an In A Silent Way outtake before the original theme reemerges to guide us home.
“Arthur, Elsie, & Frances” (an allusion to the infamous fake fairies that bedeviled Arthur Conan Doyle) moves at a faster clip, all discordant keyboards, hi-hat shots, clanging percussion, and fuzzy guitar licks. Then, about halfway through, the song peters out and another acoustic guitar (this time gently strummed) brings a military-style drumbeat and more moody keyboards, stopping and starting before a warm guitar solo from O’Sullivan (the kind DJ Shadow would’ve sampled if it’d existed in 1996) enters the picture and closes the song.
The album’s centerpiece is the two-song, 15-minute suite “Twisted Stems,” divided into “The Heliotrope” and “The Selenotrope” (which, I think, have something to do with the sun and moon – I mean, we are talking about prog here). The first actually features vocals—droning chants and an oddly plaintive male voice—over a musical bed of piano and bass, played at a slow tempo. The second, at an equally slow tempo, features more dissonant piano and guitar and Swans singer Jarboe vocalizing ethereally over everything, and is the far more compelling track.
“The Planks,” with its Middle Eastern flourishes and beat you could almost dance to, clocks in at a mere 3:11 (almost a Ramones tune by comparison) and is by far the most accessible song on here. But it’s only the lead-in to the next and last song, “King Lindorn” (named after a Swedish fable, of all things), a creepy and ominous finale. Thundering drum rolls give way to haunting keyboard notes, the tempo speeds up without warning, and more guitar noodling finds its way into the mix before a wheezing harmonium closes out the album.
Elixirs didn’t exactly convince me to give prog-rock another chance, but I can’t say that I wasn’t impressed by the musicianship or occasionally caught up in a few of the more interesting passages. Fans of the genre will probably not be disappointed. As for me, if nothing else, now I know who King Lindorn is.
Kayo Dot – Blue Lambency Downward
Magma – Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh
Ruins – Pallaschtom