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Guapo - Elixirs CD (album) cover

ELIXIRS

Guapo

 

RIO/Avant-Prog

3.85 | 52 ratings

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Syzygy
Special Collaborator
Honorary Collaborator
5 stars The three year gap between Black Oni and Elixirs was the longest yet between full length album releases for Guapo, and in that time a lot of interesting developments took place. First and foremost the band is once again a duo, now consisting of founder member David Smith on drums and percussion and Daniel O'Sullivan on keyboards, guitar and bass, although for live performances they expand to a quartet. There have been a number of related projects; there were releases from Miasma and the Carousel of Headless Horses, Aethenor and Stargazer's Assistant; Daniel O'Sullivan played live with Sunn O))) and David Smith with the Amal Gamal Ensemble; and David Smith created a large scale installation at a London art gallery (for which Stargazer's Assistant provided the soundtrack). Last but not least, Guapo continued to perform live, including their first American tour and their spectacular and well received set at the RIO festival in Carmaux, and they released the Twisted Stems limited edition ep.

Taking all of that into account, it's not surprising that Elixirs sees some significant changes in Guapo's sound. Where Black Oni and 5 Suns presented large scale pieces divided into sections, Elixirs has 5 distinct pieces (or perhaps 4 with a brief intermission), each with a distinct sound, identity and reference point. Daniel O'Sullivan plays a lot more guitar than on previous Guapo albums, and is as accomplished and inventive on guitar as he is on keyboards. David Smith is more in evidence as a subtle and skilful percussionist, which throws his powerful and ferocious drumming into sharp relief. Vocals, another first for this incarnation of Guapo, have been added to the 'Twisted Stems' tracks, and there is a cameo appearance by a member of Miasma and the Carousel of Headless Horses. There is also a feeling of space through much of the album, in contrast to the occasionally claustrophobic density of 5 Suns and Black Oni, and if the music is not as immediate as before it has become both deeper and more rewarding, constantly revealing new facets.

Jewelled Turtle opens the proceedings. The title refers to JK Huysman's A Rebours (published in English as Against Nature), a bizarre late 19th century novel about a decadent aesthete. The music moves at the slow, stately pace of the unfortunate reptile it is named for, occasionally halting for a moment. Fender Rhodes and minimal percussion provide the backbone, with Miasma's Sarah Hubrich adding some drones on violin and viola. Fingerpicked acoustic guitar adds to the atmosphere before some edgy electronics interrupt and the pace picks up a little. O'Sullivan strums a single chord on electric guitar, Hubrich plays a lament and the acoustic guitar weaves a modal melody around it while keyboards, percussion and electric guitar build to a subtle but definite climax. There's a hint of Daniel Fieschelscher era Popol Vuh here, but with a darker ambience.

Arthur, Elsie and Francis is a reference to the Cottingley Fairies. In 1917 two sisters took photographs of fairies near their home (the fairy folk looking suspiciously like cardboard cut outs). They achieved some notoriety courtesy of Arthur Conan Doyle, who was a firm believer in spiritualism and who published a book about them. The music is similar to parts of Black Oni, with contrasting delicate acoustic and pounding electric passages. Odd bursts of electronic effects add to the atmosphere, and O'Sullivan adds some beautifully fluid lead guitar, especially in the closing section.

Twisted Stems is the centrepiece of the album. The instrumental ep tracks appear here with vocals and (from the sound of it) some additional overdubbing. The Heliotrope and The Selenetrope are named for plants, the first an actual genus of plants named because they turn their leaves to face the sun, and the latter a moon worshipping herb referred to in mediaeval spells but which does not appear to correspond to any known plant. The male voice of The Heliotrope is the remarkable Alexander Tucker, who has also worked with Stargazer's Assistant, while the female voice of The Selenetrope is courtesy of Swans vocalist Jarboe. As on Jewelled Turtle there's a hint of Popol Vuh, this time in the exquisite, multi tracked vocal arrangements. The contrasts between the two pieces are obvious; sun and moon, day and night, male and female, darkness and light - but what is masterful here is the way that these are realised musically, with the ambience gradually becoming darker and more sinister as one piece gives way to the next just as day fades into night.

The Planks is a short intermission, the only piece which is not illustrated in the CD booklet. Musically it's a 3 minute guitar and drums dervish whirl that recalls some of the Middle Eastern sounding pieces on Great Sage, Equal of Heaven, the last Guapo album before O'Sullivan joined. It's tight, concise and is a good lead in to the grand finale.

King Lindorm takes its title from a Danish folk tale about a magical serpent that is born to a royal couple along with a human twin. It's the longest track on the album and the one which comes closest to the sound of 5 Suns and Black Oni, and (I think) has also been played live over the last couple of years. After a stately opening on keyboards, David Smith strikes his gong and Guapo are off into the kind of high intensity nightmare musical journey that they deliver so well. The Fender Rhodes, bass and drums interplay that defined 5 Suns is reprised here in all its glory, with O'Sullivan once again adding some excellent flourishes on guitar. This is also the one track on the album which could have benefited from the presence of a bassist; while there's nothing wrong with O'Sullivan's bass work, a third musician could have beefed the low end of musical spectrum up a little. This is a minor gripe, however, and King Lindorm is well up to standard.

Elixirs is essential listening and a strong contender for album of the year. Guapo have evolved and developed since their last release and they remain, in the best sense of the term, a progressive rock band. Their musical palette has broadened but their integrity remains intact, with their trademark dark intensity stamped over every note. It's beautifully packaged as well, with the illustrations and sleeve notes providing useful pointers to the various inspirations behind the music. An emphatic 5 stars.

Syzygy | 5/5 |

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