Review Summary: Gazpacho hints at cosmic horror, delivering an eerie arthouse success.
For all of its Celtic flourishes and streamlined songwriting, 2012's March of Ghosts came far too close to feeling like a pale imitation of the band who'd created it. Sure, Ohme's vocals remained as stunningly beautiful as ever, and the band's signature brand of atmospheric art rock was unmistakable. But it wasn't right. Much like the haggard, weary ghosts who narrated that album, Gazpacho seemed locked in a sluggish shuffle from track to track, feebly reaching for a fire they repeatedly failed to recapture. It would be dishonest to argue that the band has returned to their old selves on their eighth studio album, because the truth is that they haven't. Demon isn't such a brilliant, engaging listen just because of how good it is, but also because of how radically different it is from the rest of the band's discography. Equal parts fearless ambition and bizarre experimentation, Demon is a return to the upper echelon for a band who just two years ago barely won out against the looming threat of mediocrity.
So, just how much of a departure is Gazpacho's latest album from the band's previous work? If the Italian tarantella that comprises the second half of The Wizard of Altai Mountains, whose first half is part tango, part ballad, doesn't answer that question, then nothing ever will. Death Room opens with some of the most jarring, guttural noises possible before leading into the melancholic plucking of a balalaika. An accordion and a banjo battle for breathing room minutes later. If this isn't sounding weird yet, then either I haven't communicated clearly enough or the band have unwittingly launched themselves into an alternate universe. Gazpacho's new-found adventurous attitude doesn't exist for its own sake, however, as every piece of the puzzle – and the album is a puzzle, make no mistake – comes together brilliantly for a singular message: the roots of madness are deep and dark.
Whereas Night was inspired by the boundaries between dream and reality, Demon hints at cosmic horror, an influence that suggests itself to the listener throughout the record. It's easy to imagine the smoking, oily roots depicted on the album's cover weaving throughout forests, burrowing beneath oceans, and stretching across continents, consuming everything they touch as the eighteen minute opus Death Room twists and turns through its murky depths. Elsewhere, Jan-Henrik Ohme laments “there's no Altai mountain / there's no eternal cord / no Eldorado / there is no reward” alongside a solitary violin in I've Been Walking, Pt 2. The provocative delivery comes with the worrisome possibility that this isn't just an admission of personal defeat, but a declaration of universal law. It's the band's ability to perfectly capture a disturbed, dreary ambience that cements itself as one of Demon's greatest assets, an accomplishment that only veteran practitioners of atmosphere could hope to achieve. Were H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Chambers alive and well, they'd certainly be raising their eyebrows.
This isn't to say that the band's new-found love of atypical instrumentation and hair-raising discomfort exists entirely without the sophisticated, progressive structures and breathtaking beauty that the band utilized so well in the past. I've Been Walking's second half, for instance, is a masterclass in gorgeous composition. Comprised of lush string arrangements and vibrant piano chords waltzing beneath Ohme's flowing vocal delivery, the track moves through numerous stylistic shifts before transitioning into the mammoth closer, Death Room, which makes a convincing early run for the year's most “progressive” song. As mentioned previously, Demon is a sprawling, complex puzzle, but contrary to Ohme's lyrics, there's bountiful reward in struggling to fit the quirky songwriting choices together within the context of the band's existing sonic framework.
Before the release of Night, Gazpacho said that they'd begun a new musical endeavor: an attempt to create a series of films without pictures. With Demon, the band can chalk up yet another win on their board of concept albums, having created an errie arthouse triumph. It's a haunting journey through the ramblings of a madman’s diary, following the cause of every plague and every bomb that scoured and scorched the earth. Demon is equal parts Cthulu and Carcosa - a compelling tapestry of existential dread and unsettling abstraction threaded together by exceptional song-craft and remarkable beauty. Listen with the lights out.