Friday 7 June 2019

Gong - The Universe Also Collapses (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 10 May 2019
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Wikipedia

Here's another name from across the decades and one with a notable history that's still being forged, even after all its most prominent members are no longer with us. Gong were formed in a Paris commune in 1967 by Daevid Allen and Gilli Smyth, who passed away in 2015 and 2016 respectively. After they left the band in 1975 (albeit not for long), Pierre Moerlen continued on as a jazz fusion band, but he died in 2005.

The line-up has changed more times than can be comfortably imagined and now features nobody who was involved at any point during the first four decades of the band's history. That's weird, but it doesn't mean that the musicians are new fish. The old hand nowadays is Fabio Golfetti, their Brazilian lead guitarist, who joined Gong in 2007 but also continues to lead his own prog rock band, Violeta de Outono, which he formed in 1985. Gong was one of his key influences from childhood so leading the band now must be a real blast.

Now, I've listened to a lot of seventies prog rock and I've enjoyed much of what I've heard, but I've never managed to get into Gong, whose influential Radio Gnome Invisible trilogy of albums still seem impenetrable to me. This album, ironically, seems far more accessible to me than legendary releases like Camembert Electrique which influenced the current members.

There are four tracks here, of wildly different lengths, but they betray a commonality in each being constructed from intricate little riffs that flow into each other like tesselations. This is an album for pattern spotters or listeners with OCD because those patterns vary just a little and are often the ground over which the saxophone of Ian East soars like an alien bird.

Forever Reoccurring is a twenty minute opener, because that doesn't seem at all odd when you're Gong. It starts softly, pulsing slowly into action with echoey vocals from Kavus Torabi. This is Gong in space rock mode, patiently building with a little escalation here and a new layer there, along with a looped vocal that runs behind a good chunk of the track.

There's a lot here, maybe appropriately given that the lyrics seem to have us singing together while the universe collapses. If this were 1970, there would be a host of different names for the different movements, some led by vocals and some led by different instruments. Like the universe, though, it plays well together and seems somehow timeless. Those twenty minutes last a lifetime but are over before we know it.

Oddly, Gong follow a twenty minute track with a two minute one, which is a decent piece for its length, but we blink and we're into My Sawtooth Wake, an even more ambitious take on the ideas in the first track but compressed into a mere thirteen minutes. It's two thirds in when it comes most alive with a driving riff and an explosive solo from East's saxophone. It's good throughout but, after that wild midsection, it fades somewhat.

The final track is The Elemental, which runs a short seven minutes and has the wrong mindset to wrap up this album. It's not a bad track, but it's the safest on the album and it was never going to stand out after the couple of earlier long tracks, as playful and experimental as they were. It does end well though, with a minute or so that sums up what's gone before but with a telling repeated lyric, "Remember there is only now."

Gong, it seems, are a going concern: inventive, fearless and somehow fresh, perhaps revitalised by an entirely new generation of musicians inspired by the Gong that came before them. Surely this was the goal of Daevid Allen's e-mail to the band asking them to continue on after his death. They've done him proud.

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