Let’s face it, 2020 has been a bloody strange and tumultuous year, and then along come Gazpacho to add their own particularly weird flavour to these peculiar times with a darkly hypnotic and ambitious concept album in five parts. As usual Gazpacho make no compromises and express themselves with characteristic, inimitable individuality and undeniable eccentricity. In Fireworker they have surpassed themselves both musically and conceptually.
So, where do we go with Gazpacho on this album? They usually take us on some sort of journey, such as their classic desert walk on 2009 album Tick Tock, or in time and space on their last 2018 album Soyuz. This time Gazpacho take us on the most fantastic and profound journey ever – deep within our own interiors, delving far into our minds… and maybe our souls? Thomas Andersen is the keyboardist and one of the main songwriters in the band, and it is his concept that the band so skilfully portray. In a recent interview with TPA he revealed that the ‘Fireworker’ is the:
“…life force that has somehow managed to survive for billions of years… You and me are only the ‘vehicle’ in which it currently travels. All it wants is for us to procreate. It wants to copy itself, and it doesn’t give a shit about you, and once it’s done with you it wants you to die because you need to back off to make space for more generations of ‘It’.”
This Fireworker is also known as the ‘Lizard’ or the ‘Space Cowboy’ and Thomas likens it to an immensely old entity or parasite that exists deep within us and can take over control of us instantly if necessary, especially if we need to do something instinctively very suddenly to avoid harm or death. The narrative in this album focuses on a main character who decides to journey deep into his (or her) own mind to confront his Fireworker, and to try to find out who is actually in control. Thomas expands on this fascinating idea a great deal more in the TPA interview.
Space Cowboy commences that journey with dripping sounds, soft tinkling piano and Jan Henrik Ohme’s distinctive, yearning vocals as the narrative clearly commences within the sphere of the brain. Listeners need to buckle in and prepare for quite a journey in which the music swings dramatically between crystalline passages of delicacy to titanic swathes of grandiosity. There is a sense of entering an echoing abyssal space filled with mystery and menace. The alternating soft-loud sequences can feel rather disconcerting but also thrilling. This is no straightforward verse – chorus – verse piece – it feels more like a sonic poem or symphony.
Thomas Andersen excels with vast banks of organ sounds giving way to raindrops of piano and xylophone. The drama develops with the eerie chanted vocalisations of a choir, which Thomas has revealed represent his Mind warning the main character to not go any deeper. Robert Johansen powerfully pounds out a thunderous avalanche of drums to massive effect, and it feels like we are descending into Stygian depths within our soul. This is a breathtaking opening sequence… and then we take a left turn into the remarkable Clockwork section. This resonant and tragic sequence references Paris, where Thomas eventually realised his mother was very ill, and the ‘Radium Girls’ who early in the Twentieth Century used to lick the paintbrushes they dipped in radium. They used that lethal substance to achieve the fine detailed painting of clock and watch faces to make them luminous, unaware at that time of the dangers of radioactivity. As Thomas explains in the interview this section portrays that:
“there are some things that are a shitload more dangerous than you know… Eventually their jaws started falling off due to the radiation. These beautiful girls became monsters. The point is that some things you’re doing that you think are innocent or harmless can come back to punish you.”
Yet again the Mind is trying to find some way to warn the main character, reminding them about the ‘Radium Girls’ and indicating: “Look what happened to them, don’t go to that place.”
This is a fascinating combination of stories and images, but does it work musically? The answer is categorically ‘Yes’. Gazpacho have a great ability to convey atmospheres imaginatively with lyrical imagery and evocative musical passages. The Clockwork section takes us to another time and place, but also successfully uses poignant memories and a tragic story to convey cryptic warnings in a captivating manner. Andersen has shared that he feels Gazpacho are a very ‘European’ and ‘Romantic band’, and it is imagery and music of this nature which underlines that style and heritage.
Space Cowboy may arguably be one of the best and certainly one of the most ambitious pieces of music Gazpacho have ever created. It combines touching fragile sounds with mighty slabs of rock and choral bombast, conveying an intense internal dialogue as our main character forges on determinedly to confront his inner Lizard.
After the opening aural spectacle of Space Cowboy, Gazpacho show their versatility by using three shorter and all rather different pieces to further illustrate the complexities and intricacies of this concept. Antique emerges like some sort of musical reptile from mildly fizzing static with subtle percussive beats. It soon settles into a much more contemplative piece, beautifully embroidered with Mikael Krømer’s haunting violin and Jon-Arne Vilbo’s subtle, chiming guitar work. This is a song perfectly suited to Jan Henrik Ohme’s fragile emotive vocals. Thomas Andersen has shared:
“Antique is a song about how very old things, antiques, like the Fireworker with its billions of years, but also stuff like beliefs your parents might have inherited from their grandparents still have power over us on a daily basis.”
Importantly, as interesting as the lyrical concept of Antique may be, it is also a fine musical piece, drawing the listener in with its beguiling melodies, subtle rhythms and elegiac violin, which somehow combine to convey a sense of great antiquity and heritage. There is real restraint shown here which conversely gives the piece more power and resonance – sometimes less really is more.
Similarly Hourglass is a pristine example of gossamer thin fragility and control, which appropriately sounds like glass with its opening of tinkling pianos. Jan Henrik’s voice almost sounds like he could dissolve at any time. Thomas revealed:
“Hourglass is about all those people who died before us… – I’m thinking about all the other people who had ‘It’ (the ‘Fireworker’) before I have it now. All those people that have ground up and disappeared down the Hourglass. The only remnant of them is their contribution to the DNA that is now in us… it’s a song of memory to them.”
He went on to share that the original intention had been to make the song more hymnal but the song developed differently. Even so you can definitely detect a church-like atmosphere evoked by Andersen’s use of organ sounds and the return of the choir (which Andersen reveals are actually produced by synths, which is was a surprise, such is their sound.) Mikael Krømer’s mournful violin adds a suitably melancholic bridge to the song before the gently cascading grains of piano notes and Ohme’s softly melodic voice slip elegiacally through the musical Hourglass. It’s a touching and beautiful song.
In total contrast, title song Fireworker is striking, full of ritualistic fire and energy. Andersen explained that this is based on the Voodoo God or Devil, ‘Papa Legba’, from Haiti, hence the exotic sounds, intended to convey a Haitian market place. Andersen feels that the ‘Fireworker’ within us is also the ‘fun’ and mischievous side of us, which is evoked in this song. Additionally Andersen suggested it is:
He gives you the strength you need. You couldn’t survive without it…”
That sense of energy and drive is conveyed perfectly by Kristian Torp on bass and drummer Robert Johansen, who set an infectious rhythm, locking into quite a groove before Jon-Arne Vilbo builds intensity with powerful guitars. There are no real flamboyant ‘solos’ on this album – each player just contributes what is exactly needed for the whole piece rather than vying for attention with shows of virtuosity.
After the fun and fire of the title song, the album concludes with a second epic piece, Sapien, bookending the album with Space Cowboy. The 15-minute Sapien is more of a ‘grower’ than the first piece. Indeed, like most Gazpacho albums the whole of Fireworker is an album which really needs repeated listening – this is not background music! The subtle electronic beats intertwine with a simple keyboard motif as the story gradually draws to the conclusion. The main character has persisted on their inward journey, despite the repeated warnings of its own conscious mind. Garbled, barely discernible sampled dialogue threads through the piece with distorted guitar notes and a seemingly inexorable Mammoth of drums and bass rumbling forward in the cavernous space deep within the brain. The main character has finally made it all the way into the depths of their inner self to meet his Space Cowboy, his Lizard or his Fireworker.
“He asks the Fireworker:
‘Do I have a name? Am I an identity? Am I a living creature? Or am I just a shell you’re using to travel around who let’s me think I’m in charge but I’ll just do what you ask?’”
At the end of the piece the ‘Fireworker’ just calls him ‘Sapien’, because ‘Sapien’ just stands for ‘Homo Sapien’ – that’s what we are. He just calls him ‘Sapien’ because this is the incarnation that he lives in now”.
In the context of the massively ancient Fireworker, dating back to the origins of life on Earth 3.6 billion years ago, the length of our human lives is minuscule in comparison. Whilst the Fireworker entity may seem indifferent to our conscious identity, Sapien also underlines that it was the instinctive strength and tenacity of the character’s inner Fireworker that carried him through hard times and was there when the person needed inner strength to survive. Therefore, at the heart of this album is a real tension – the Fireworker has an undoubted darkness, but without it we simply would not have survived. That contradiction or tension is captured throughout the album, particularly on Sapien, which portrays the final debate between the main character and his own internal Fireworker with shades of light and dark, soft and hard, signifying the conflict between the conscious mind and it’s ancient instinctive controlling inner force.
In truth, Sapien is less immediately striking than Space Cowboy and for some it will take more time to appreciate its subtlety – it certainly took me a while, but it’s worth it. Sapien moves forward in a more stately fashion, adopting a marching rhythm, faintly reminiscent of The Walk from Tick Tock, hypnotically and inexorably grinding onwards. The mid-section feels more dream-like but the band builds and builds with Vilbo’s guitars subtly rising above the maelstrom, before we drop into a much quieter passage. This end-section recapitulates the marching tempo of the beginning and against a gorgeous organ sound and subtle percussion Ohme resonantly intones the voice of the Fireworker reminding the main character of the inner strength it gave them to survive. There is no grand conclusion or dazzling finale – Gazpacho just do it their way and the piece gradually dissolves… and it feels like we’re back in the cave of the brain where we started… and which we probably never really left?
Gazpacho are challenging the listeners to focus on the whole album and invest time in gradually uncovering the musical gems. Thomas Andersen has previously stated that it takes at least ten listens to get into a Gazpacho album – he clearly has high expectations of their audience. Equally he credits them with some patience, intelligence and imagination, with the insight and patience to stick with their new music and let it gradually sink in. I have lived with this album fairly solidly for quite a few days. It has grown and grown in fascination for me, with growing familiarity and love for the melodies and themes which resonate throughout the album.
The music and concepts of Gazpacho albums have become increasingly complex and challenging to the listener. Andersen has acknowledged that they have become increasingly ‘difficult’ over the years, for which he makes no apologies. He likens their heavy themes and music as akin to novels. That is a good analogy. A great novel only slowly reveals its depth and story over the turn of many pages. Fireworker truly repays the listener willing to invest time and focus on truly entering the world evoked by the music and lyricism of Gazpacho…
… so find some time, sit down, pour yourself a drink and open the musical pages of Gazpacho’s latest musical tome. It may be just one of the best ‘novels’ you’ve heard all 2020!
[You can read Leo’s interview with Gazpacho keyboardist Thomas Andersen HERE]
01. Space Cowboy (19:40)
02. Hourglass (4:17)
03. Fireworker (4:45)
04. Antique (6:26)
05. Sapien (15:22)
Total Time – 50:30
Jan Henrik Ohme – Vocals
Thomas Andersen – Keyboards, Programming
Jon-Arne Vilbo – Guitars
Mikael Krømer – Violin, Mandolin
Kristian Torp – Bass
Robert Risberget Johansen – Drums, Percussion
Record Label: Kscope
Country of Origin: Norway
Date of Release: 18th September 2020
– Bravo (2003)
– When Earth Lets Go (2004)
– Firebird (2005)
– Night (2007) (Reissued 2012)
– Tick Tock (2009) (Reissued 2015)
– A Night at Loreley (live) (2009)
– Missa Atropos (2010)
– London (live) (2011)
– March of Ghosts (2012)
– Demon (2014)
– Night of the Demon (live) (2015)
– Molok (2015)
– Introducing Gazpacho (compilation) (2015)
– Soyuz (2018)
– Fireworker (2020)