There is a problem that has both defined and plagued progressive rock for as long as it has been a genre. Those over-long songs that have come to be beloved by the faithful and imitated by new generations, without getting at what the actual structure of them are, have lapsed into a form of self-parody. I recall watching an interview with such a band, and they kept rattling about how they “needed more epics, we had to come up with more epics,” as if they were discussing light bulbs or bananas. And likely, when bands such as these get their epics, they are seven songs edited together as one with the first song recapped at the end to contrive a feeling of closure. Even with such an arrangement, it sometimes works. Most times it does not.
So much for unfounded first impressions. Demon is an alternately beautiful, sad, languid album that gets the long song format, if not right, then at least more interesting than an album-side without track breaks. The one-two punch of “I’ve Been Walking” Parts 1 and 2 comprise the meat of the album and part one acts as a primer for how this is all going to go down. Musical sections enter and exit, some may be repeated later on, but mostly not. The moments where you expect the big rock band blast are pushed aside for quiet passages. There isn’t a strict, formulaic context to the songs. They act more like an orchestral piece than a rock piece, verging on stream-of-consciousness but with a logic to each ebb and flow.
Between these two parts, “The Wizard of Altai Mountains” starts like circus music and shifts midway through to a sort of gypsy music, and does not return to the previous train of thought. The title is referenced in “I’ve Been Walking Part 2” in the line “There are no Altai Mountains, no El Dorado.” It all concludes with track four, “Death Room,” which is buffeted by disturbing buzzing and whirring of industrial sounds, and the occasional sideways scrape of a bow across cello strings, sounding more like someone shoving furniture against a door than actual music. The song itself is very musical, but anxious.
I’ve read a few accounts about what all this means where the narrative is concerned. From an article in Prog Magazine, the band told how the album was inspired by the discovery of an old manuscript in a friend’s house.
“The unknown author claimed to have discovered the source of what he called an evil presence in the world,” Gazpacho explain. “This presence, ‘The Demon,’ was an actual intelligent will, with no mercy and a desire for evil things to happen.
“The author wrote as if he had lived for thousands of years stalking this presence – the thought of this mysterious figure hunting the ‘Demon’ seemed like too good an idea not to write about.”
The music itself serves to confirm and contradict. The first line on the album is, “I’ve been walking tired earth.” The so-called demon hunter sounds like he is ready to give up, and indeed, the majority of the album’s lyrics lean toward the narrator accepting his fate. Don’t get too bogged down by the promise of a storyline, because that turns out to be pretty irrelevant. This isn’t a rock opera in the strictest sense.
The music is an intersection between the more placid moments of Radiohead’s O.K. Computer, the less frantic and confused efforts from The Mars Volta, and similar linear-structured songs like “The Invisible Man” from Marillion, which is to say in aggregate it sounds nothing like any of them at one time. By using this sort of freedom, Gazpacho has put out the remedy for anyone sick of the ultra-formula of modern rock and pop, where everything depends on repetition. They have also made long-form songs that move in a unified forward direction and feel shorter than the clock says. These are not seventeen or eighteen songs pasted together into four.
Is it happy music? Hardly. I would not recommend the album when you are in down and dour moods, but I will heartily endorse it. Gazpacho’s Demon is probably the most audacious recording to come out in 2014 because it is defiant against nearly every process it is supposed to be emulating. That alone makes it worth your time.