By Oliver Arditi
Guapo is a band with some form; since 1995 they have released a fistful of EPs and nine albums, and although the line-up and sound have changed considerably over that time, the name has been attached to music that shows a consistent and determined belief in the value of creative exploration. This music is progressive; it is also rock music, but if I were to juxtapose those terms too closely you’d likely jump to certain erroneous conclusions about the character of the sound. Although it has to be said that the prog-rock fraternity is a pretty broad church these days, and a noticeable proportion of its listening public would probably be eager to claim Guapo for their own; because what Guapo demonstrate emphatically is that there is room within the recognisable language of rock for artistic strategies that are rigorous, experimental and exploratory, that seek to negotiate a path, rather than simply to inhabit some territory in the manner of the majority of the music that is misleadingly referred to as progressive rock. Guapo are very clearly going somewhere; I have no idea where, and I imagine that they probably don’t either, but their music is the record of a journey, full of moments of discovery and revelation, and that for me is always far more exciting than the sound of somebody sitting still, safely enacting the procedures that they know they’re good at.The band that recorded History Of The Visitation is something of a fresh page for Guapo: their previous release, Elixirs, concluded a trilogy of albums that covered a considerable range of creative ground with a shifting roster of personnel, but the credits for this latest release show only percussionist David J. Smith in common with its predecessor, or indeed with the band’s founding line-up. That it still makes perfect sense to refer to the music as Guapo, that the collaborative entity invoked by that name retains a recognisable existence, that it has creative rather than institutional continuity, is a mark of the rigour and commitment with which Guapo has always pursued, and continues to pursue, the business of writing and performing music.
So what exactly is this album made of? Well for one thing it’s made of considerably more woodwind than it’s usual to find in rock music, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it, since with the guitar and keyboards playing such sonically mutable parts it’s often less than clear exactly what the source of each sound might be. History Of The Visitation is marked by a liking for continuous tones and thick textures, articulating slow moving harmonies and static modalities in a manner reminiscent of various forms of drone music, and this is where the wind instruments are employed, leaving active melodic statements in the hands of the guitar and keyboards. Extended washes of evolving harmonic and timbral colour punctuate the album, introducing ‘The Pilman Radiant’ and comprising the whole of ‘Complex #7’; these subtle passages are composed of complex, laminar aural fabric, in which recognisable instrumental voices rub shoulders with processing, string noise, and sounds of no clearly identifiable origin. Elsewhere a more conventional rock texture is employed, orchestrating the traditional components thereof in their established roles; there is a very open, improvisational feel to these parts of the album, but they are clearly tightly arranged, with unison or homorhythmic passages emerging and submerging like the themes in early 1970s funk-fusion jams, leaving the listener to wonder how the musicians could possibly have kept their place in the sea of rolling groove. The ensemble functions in a way that resembles a jam band, although its harmonic and melodic material is considerably less conventional than such outfits’ usual fare: the grooves are simultaneously tight and loose, with accents precisely locked-in, but delivered with a casual insouciance that belies the care with which the music has been arranged. There are melodic statements, but they are never the sole focus of the music; the organ figure that brings in ‘Tremors From The Future’ resembles the cellular motifs of minimalism, as does the angular guitar lick with its strange stress pattern. They are quite clearly present for their textural value rather than to articulate a tonal narrative, and it sounds to me as though texture, and its capacity to evoke atmosphere, are at least as important toGuapo as any other carriers of musical significance.
That observation may make this album sound like a pretty conventional post-rock recording; it is certainly a work of texture, soundscape, atmosphere, long, shallow dynamic gradients, chunky rhythms and crunchy guitars. But that is more or less where the similarities run out. For one thing, post-rock tends toward a bittersweet but basically comfortable affective territory, and when it gets big and dramatic it’s all about waving your arms around on a hilltop being exhilaratingly windswept; History Of The Visitation has moments of grandeur, sweeping passages of pelagic majesty, but they are more disturbing than cathartic, and they promise a more fuliginous sort of exegesis than all of that puppyish affirmation. For another thing, post-rock is a genre notable for the care with which its textures are constructed, but those textures are largely a matter of carefully managing the density of a given, limited set of ingredients; here, Guapo are making texture out of timbre, out of rhythm, out of melody, and out of the thick ambiguous harmonies that stick it all together. Tension and release are the materials of narrative drama in any diachronically articulated art form, and while the tension of this music is released dynamically at regular intervals, the reassurance of a return to the stable tonal centre of a fundamentally diatonic soundworld is never on the menu. Brooding, chromatically inflected chord sequences underpin upper harmonies and melodic materials that make extensive use of symmetrical modalities, modalities that may perch for a while on a convenient outcropping of the root motion, but which are about as tonally stable as nitroglycerine; atonality is a constant threat, although it is rarely carried out. The band throw out dark skeins of sound that swirl with inviting dervish abandon, but promise the celebrant something more complex and challenging than simple bodily hedonism.
The music on History Of The Visitation is decidedly unsetting, in many ways, but its language is not completely experimental. It flirts with atonality, and rhythmically it is mostly divisible by the usual numbers; its orchestrations manipulate timbre and texture in ways that are unique to this record, but at the same time they usually work in the way that we expect rock arrangements to work, with drums providing a beat, chords supporting a melody, and a bassline resolving the pulse and the harmony into root movement. The record is threatening, but it is also melancholy. Its darkness is not the terror-ridden fantasy of the horror film, but more the sense of potent and inscrutable forces moving just out of sight. It is the carrier of powerful and immersive meanings, but it does not abandon the simple musical vocabulary that makes them accessible; instead it mines the power of the riff to guide us towards some very moving and thought-provoking experiences. There is strength in this music, and the excitement of the exercise of strength, but there is also tragedy, reflection, and most of all, conversation. How much improvisation is present in the final mix is moot; but the album has the quality of improvised music, the sense of an ongoing, responsive exchange between creative, listening musicians, doing something more than reproducing the parts of an arrangement. For me, that’s the key to the album’s emotional power: Guapo commit themselves unequivocally to these performances, investing their considerable skill as players with heart, with a humane focus on the act of communication, of sharing. They don’t set out to make it easy for us as listeners, but if we choose to follow the affective trail they mark out, they offer to guide and support us all the way. That’s about as much as you can ask from a musical performance.
Cuneiform Records RUNE 354/355, 2013