From The Needle Drop:
For just over 10 years, London's Guapo has been working in the world of avant and progressive rock.
The band's past is a bit hard to track with its numerous lineup changes and guest musicians. The most recent change in roster was the resignation of Matthew Thompson, the founding member of Guapo, which occurred just before the release of 2005's Black Oni.
The departure of Thompson has left Guapo with percussionist David Smith and multi-instrumentalist Daniel O'Sullivan. Though O'Sullivan is by no means a founding member of the band, but he was essential in honing the sound on Guapo's last two LPs: Five Suns and Black Oni.
These two albums have been pivotal in building Guapo's following of fans, so it's hard not to credit O'Sullivan as an asset to the band. Also take into consideration that Guapo's earlier work such as the raw and guitar-driven Towers Open Fire or the noise-latent The Ducks and Drakes of Guapo and Cerberus Shoal sound completely different than their latest releases, so it's not as if the handle of "Guapo" hasn't endured great changes already.
So, with the loss of Thompson, O'Sullivan has taken on additional instruments--namely vocals, autoharp, bass, guitars--and is working to keep the moniker alive with percussionist David Smith on Elixirs.
Guapo touts this latest release as their most poignant album to date, and it has to be given to them that it certainly has a focused sound. But with the loss of Thompson, there some obvious changes.
Right off the bat, Elixirs clearly favors a cerebral approach to music over some of the aggressive sounds on Five Suns and Black Oni. The building strings, slow pace, and light percussion of Elixirs' first track, "Jeweled Turtle," make it an ominous introduction. The viola and violin performance lent by Sara Hubrich brings this opener an atmosphere that could not have been achieved otherwise.
Changes usually come in slow movements over the course of this song's thirteen minutes, but others are more surprising. Just past the 7-minute mark, an interruption of hiss quickly turns into a flurry of light cymbals and sporadic keys. A drop in percussion leads to the lone strumming of a minor chord on electric guitar, and everything rockets off into a one-chord build into a sound that flirts with with the tradition of Klezmer or Middle Eastern music.
"The Planks" also carries on in the Middle Eastern tradition with its almost droning guitar strumming and galloping beat.
The odd time signatures and heavy percussion the band usually features comes right up on the album's second track, "Aurthur, Elsie and Frances." There are a few edits on this one where it seems the percussion was recorded in a more rudimentary fashion, but it doesn't pull from the song's power that much.
"Arthur, Elsie and Frances" and "King Lindorm" are where Guapo really lets the madness they keep reserved on much of Elixirs run free.
The two-part section of "Twisted Stems: The Heliotrope" and "Twisted Stems: The Selenotrope" are the only tracks that feature vocals, and after some careful listening, it seems as if one track is an answer to another.
Both songs start with the same percussive sound from what might be a singing bowl. The tempo, space between piano chords, and multi-tracked vocals are also similar, but the opposites of the two tracks seem just as planned as their commonalities.
"The Heliotrope"'s major tonality and male vocals are a great change from the dissonance and mournful female vocals--which are performed by Jarboe of the experimental rock group Swans--that drive "The Selenotrope."
Elixirs' deep and experimental nature may very well put to rest any doubts held by fans with the loss of Matt Thompson, and if O'Sullivan keeps Guapo going in this direction, there will be good reason for a follow-up.
If you're into Guapo, you may also enjoy Magma, Ruins, Sunn O))), Zombi, and Swans.