Kristoffer Gildenlöw – Empty

Kristoffer Gildenlöw – Empty

Multi-instrumentalist Kristoffer Gildenlöw has had a long and varied career. Beginning with brother Daniel’s band, Pain Of Salvation, Kristoffer honed his bass chops and eventually moved on, doing session work in his newly adopted home in the Netherlands, working with artists such as Neal Morse, Lana Lane and Damian Wilson. Gildenlöw’s first solo album, Rust was released in 2012. A stint with Kayak and three additional solo albums later, we finally have Empty.

Empty is a dark, brooding meditation on the human condition. A concept album in the sense that its songs centre around a theme rather than a linear story, the album addresses individual experiences, the human race at large, and the creator’s observations of the inhabitants of Earth. This is not anyone’s idea of casual listening. The lyrics and the music practically demand that you pay attention. From the onset, you get the idea that Gildenlöw is fed up with everything around him, as evidenced by the title of the track Time To Turn The Page. A sparse guitar backdrop beneath treated vocals sets the mood. When the band finally crashes in at the two minute mark, it has the impact of a semitrailer crashing into a wall, notes flying forcefully in every direction. When the song returns to the simplicity of the opening, the devastation is complete. Melancholy electric piano and violin underpin End Of The Run. The weary vocals reflect the hopelessness of the lyric as Gildenlöw sings, “Soon comes their time to perish/I tried to save them/Guess I will have to sit and watch the show go down”. Is the creator about to give up on his creation? The guitars take a more active role in Harbinger, but the gentle, recurring piano riff and anguished vocals threaten to pull the song under.

Somber rules the day, as songs like Black and White and The Brittle Man practically wallow in weariness. The former at least introduces a female harmony vocal to find a hopeful space, which works quite well and sets itself against the overall restraint of the instrumental approach. The latter just reinforces the aura of sadness with its understated and repetitive guitar rhythm. Pink Floyd’s The Wall is an obvious touchstone for the tone of the album, but nowhere more prominently than on He’s Not Me and Down We Go. A sense of foreboding is echoed in the cello which introduces He’s Not Me. Once the guitars kick in, we are in Floydian territory, particularly with the evocative slide work. The subdued vocals and their reliance on harmony keep the song from sounding too derivative, but the guitars soloing over a very Rick Wright-sounding organ part take the song dangerously close to copycat territory. On Down We Go, Gildenlöw has the good sense to go down alleys that lead to somewhere other than The Wall redux. Wearing his sensitivity on his sleeve, Gildenlöw mines the depths of despair and then digs even deeper. The spare musical accompaniment serves to emphasize the emotion, and when the guitars take the lead, they are just as emotional as the vocals.

A couple tunes appear at first listen to lighten up the mood. Beautiful Decay starts with a rolling piano figure in waltz time which, along with the strong rhythmic push, want to make you reach for a ray of hope. But lyrics like “Now is all we’ve got and I’m full of doubt/And you’re just a waste of space/But hey, blessed make-believe” remind you why the album is titled Empty. The piano and strings of Means To An End encourage Gildenlöw to lighten up a bit. Even a surprising Mark Knopfler-esque guitar solo provides a welcome reprieve from the Gilmour vibe. The percussive plucked violins of Turn It All Around are a nice contrast to the bowed strings which take over to soften the mood. Even Gildenlöw’s vocal timbre here is different, the vibrato bringing to mind Antimatter’s Mick Moss at times.

A wordless chorus and full band arrangement bring some relief from the bottomless well of sorrow on Saturated. Not to say that this is an uplifting hymn to positivity, but it is a much more straightforward song than most anything else on the album. There are interesting little touches, like the beautiful synth lines, the prominence of the drums, and what sounds a lot like a glockenspiel that make this possibly the most accessible song on Empty. The closing title track is a nearly ten minute epic. Atmospheric sounds disorient the listener, as if lost in a dense fog, and the effect is chilling. Empty takes more than two minutes for the electric piano to usher in a vague sense of melody. Gildenlöw’s vocal struggles to rise above a whisper. If Saturated offered any hope at all, Empty dispels it utterly. “They pray and pray and pray/But looking down on what it all has become/Do we even want to stay?/We have done it all before but we never learn/And I am empty.” The only thing that keeps you from sliding that razor across your wrist is the spectacular guitar fireworks coda of the song.

Empty is an odd album. Each song in isolation is a study in tension without release, emotion as the core of the song, and of the virtues of instrumental restraint. As a whole, though, it is a difficult listen. The weightiness of the hour long journey can be daunting; the album should come with a prescription for an antidepressant. Yet, the strengths of Empty are such that if you are not predisposed to clinical depression, I recommend you give it a listen, probably best done in short takes of a couple songs at a time. Empty is full of raw emotion, provocative thought, and a rare sense of musical self-discipline. Not for everyone, to be sure, but those that get it, get it.

01. Time To Turn The Page (3:35)
02. The End Of The Run (4:37)
03. Harbinger Of Sorrow (4:29)
04. He’s Not Me (5:56)
05. Black & White (5:25)
06. Down We Go (7:33)
07. Turn It All Around (3:15)
08. Means To An End (4:04)
09. Beautiful Decay (4:02)
10. The Brittle Man (2:30)
11. Saturated (4:58)
12. Empty (9:53)

Total Time – 60:17

Kristoffer Gildenlöw – Vocals, Most Instruments & Solos
~ With:
Dirk Bruinenberg – Drums
Jeroen Molenaar – Drums
Joris Lindner – Drums, Hammond Organ
Paul Coenradie – Guitar Solos
Marcel Singor – Guitar Solos
Patrick Drabe – Guitar Solos
Ola Sjonneby – Brass
Ben Mathot – Violin
Anne Bakker – Violin, Viola
Maaike Peterse – Cello
Jan Willem Ketelaers – Backing Vocals
Erna Auf der Haar – Backing Vocals

Record Label: New Joke Music
Country of Origin: Netherlands
Date of Release: 8th February 2024

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