Review Summary: Loser (n.): (1) ill-fated person with the opposite of nothing to lose. (2) skramz childhood, prog adulthood
Everyone loves an untouchable one-and-done. Everyone also loves a good comeback. As luck would have it, The Loser
is 100% in the latter camp: if that’s all you’re here for, grab it quicksharp and claim a free calendar to celebrate the time since the last Gospel release lying in the field of days/weeks/months rather than a whole seventeen years. It’s still a strange feeling; I’m still at a loss as to what it means for Gospel to have made a comeback at all. The legacy of their cult-classic 2005 debut The Moon Is A Dead World
is fascinating, equal parts boundary-blurring prog-boosted skramz and underground online hagiography, but it’s shrouded at every turn in obscurity. As such, I’m not convinced Gospel are half as influential as they’re often made out to be, likely because their roots in rollicking ‘70s prog were at once harder to imitate directly and straightforwardly less cool
than the post-rock stencils used by more prominent contemporaries like City of Caterpillar and Circle Takes the Square - and that’s not even starting on drummer Vincent Roseboom’s irreplicable virtuosity. They’re best placed somewhere in between inimitable landmark acts (Off Minor) and savvy curators of genres too niche for wider traction (The Pax Cecilia); much like those groups, they mean a great deal to very few, a deeply singular band preserved in a time capsule by the kind of die-hard fanbase who would be eternally satisfied by precisely nothing at all in the way of Major Updates. The standards foisted on any new output: huge. The pressure to go there at all: absolutely minimum. By its very existence, The Loser
probably warrants some kind of medal for sheer reckless courage. Did it need to exist? Pass. Here it is
So what gives? Kudos where it’s very much due, The Loser
is a mostly excellent album. It’s perfunctory to a fault in its revival of everything that makes Gospel who they are, and its inspirations drive it forcefully enough to scan as fresh. Perhaps most importantly, it makes no effort to walk the same paths as The Moon Is A Dead World
: the compositions leave that album’s murky, mercurial romps in the past, opting for something no less kinetic but perhaps more palpably focused. This is something that goes for the Gospel Sound v.2022 in general, thanks to a recording-mastering double-act pulled by Kurt Ballou and Magnus Lindberg (Cult of Luna), respectively. This record sounds crisp as hell’s kindling, each tone chiselled in rich detail, each note clearly discernible. I never considered The Moon…
a muddy album per se, but the clarity of this record’s production and engineering reduces it to a scuzzy wall of sound by comparison.
This is largely for the best: the band’s performances are a treat, particularly within the rhythm section, and it’s a pleasure to follow them in high definition - all the more so given that The Loser
’s polish doesn’t come at the expense of grit. Take “White Spaces”, which hits a midway skronk-out evocative of any vintage Drive Like Jehu barnstormer, or vocalist Adam Dooling’s gut-twisting performance on any given track. He may not sound as harsh as on The Moon…
(it’s a leap to consider The Loser
a screamo record at all), but he’s arguably as contorted and certainly no less raw. All these strengths come to a head on the album highlight “S.R.O.”, which nods with its compound structure at the off-kilter rambles that occasionally brought The Moon…
within a hair’s breadth of overindulgence, only to reconfigure them into one frenetic outburst after another, snappy manipulations of momentum that strain and eventually redefine the limits of the band’s songwriting and chemistry alike. Closer “Warm Bed” is almost as strong, capturing the classic ‘00s skramz sound more than anything else here with its pathos-laden melodies and linear build-ups. It’s a welcome return, as satisfying a note as any to bow out on.
And yet there are bones unpicked, flaws camouflaged by the record’s slick packing and shiny production, and a wider sense of weight
that it lacks as a package. All things considered, there are only two significant factors capping the ceiling. The first - that The Loser
rarely aspires to the same heights of bombastic frenzy as The Moon…
- is forgivable under the guise of refinement-over-rehash. The second is more troublesome and often pans out as an active dampener: those fucking
keyboards. Was there really such a need? Part of The Moon…
’s genius lay in the tension between its fantastical scope and the rough edge of its hardcore instrumentation, with keyboards distorted into the guitarsenal, spotlighting themselves only for rare accentuations; by contrast, The Loser
is saturated at every turn in the blare of retro-styled organ vamps and dinky e-piano licks. At worst, the results are song-sabotagingly duff, whether in a peripheral capacity diluting the visceral impact of tracks otherwise in full force (“Hyper”), or in focal placement spewing out the same kind of arbitrised spam that has netted prog any number of derogatory epithets (“Metallic Olives”). Worst of all is “Tango”, which goes beyond the level of arrangement mishaps and boasts a full-band revival of the Emerson Lake and Palmer-patented jank-jam, spearheaded by guess which instrument. It’s an unwelcome goofball in a near-meticulous tracklist; so it goes for overbearing keyboards in otherwise watertight compositions.
It’s not fair to say that the keys do more harm than good unilaterally. Some arrangements are cleverly constructed to their benefit: imagine the rhythm section on “Bravo” or the melodic arm of “Deerghost” any other way, and you’ve cut out the heart of the song. Even at their most grating, neither they nor the prog fixation they’re so heavily symptomatic of are album-ruiners, but they’re enough to relegate The Loser
to a sporadically great record where it could so easily have been an overwhelmingly excellent one. And that’s fine
up to a point: not outright disappointing, but certainly a little frustrating and strangely cheap in its aftertaste. It sits better as a promise of things to come - as the first chapter of a second-act career arc, say - but it doesn’t hold the same level of magnetic distinction as the band captured with their debut. Left on its own, it’s easy to see it landing in similar territory to Circle Takes the Square's own flash-in-a-pan comeback Decompositions: Volume Number One
. There are worse fates; both are fine albums on their own terms, but if The Loser
ends up anything like as quickly forgotten or as stifling to the once-open questions orbiting its parent band’s mythological potential, then whatever purchase on history it does find is going to owe an uncomfortable amount to the legend of everything we already knew about Gospel.