I’ve struggled with how to begin this review for a long time, it seems. So I’m going to approach it in slightly oblique (and strangely fitting) fashion – at the end. ‘Gonwards’ by Peter Blegvad and Andy Partridge is a wonderful record; a dense, dizzying, joyous and sometimes scary journey of juxtaposition and contradiction. It deserves a place in the collection of anyone who enjoys the challenge of really living with an album, rather than treating it as a forty-five minute distraction from the horrors of the tube journey to work. So there; I’ve given you the verdict. If you want to know why, then read on…
This is an album that gleefully revels in contrast. There are recurring lyrical themes that take new meaning in their shared context: man and machine become one, in the cases of ‘The Cryonic Trombone’ and the piano-led Lennon-esque stomp of ‘What A Car You Are’, while religion sits tight with science and technology elsewhere. This discordance is often repeated in the sounds and textures on offer – ‘From Germ to Gem’ mixes pseudo-Gregorian chant with a slow, liquid funk (and horns blaring straight from Bernard Herrmann’s ‘Taxi Driver’ score), while ‘The Devil’s Lexicon’ superimposes howling blues harp with heartbeats, programmed beats and gang vocals reminiscent of The Birthday Party.
There is often a feeling of tension and release, too. The album’s centrepiece, ‘The Cryonic Trombone’, is a nearly eight-minute exercise in sustained unease. Blegvad’s prodigiously deep voice seems to appear right inside your skull, telling a cryptic tale of a trombonist that becomes one with his instrument. The song builds over a wash of shifting textures, with clashing pitches and timbres palpating against African hand percussion. Just as it builds to a crescendo, it drops away into a beautiful orchestral arrangement, made all the more welcome because of the nightmare before it.
It’s not all oppression and heavy mood though – Blegvad has been quoted as saying he is, ‘to [his] bones a flippant individual’ and this playfulness comes to the fore on tracks such as ‘St. Augustine Says’: a brilliantly wonky pop tune that’s like Brian Wilson rearranged by Adrian Belew. Later, ‘The Impeccable Dandy In White’ is an impossibly catchy calypso with the fantastic line, ‘His slacks are cut so tight/He’s unable to relax his smile’ and a slippery, meandering tin-can guitar solo that wouldn’t sound out of place on Gracelands! There are moments of serenity too; ‘The Dope On Perelman’ boasts a luscious 6/8 groove drenched in a descending string arrangement that would not sound out of place on Beck’s ‘Sea Change’. The album closes on a wryly sarcastic note, with the final track ‘Worse On The Way’ an upliftingly sad waltz as broken and cracked as the Soviet-era Russia it evokes so well.
The production, ably performed by Andy Partridge and Stuart Rowe, is fantastic. Every track is given it’s own sonic environment to inhabit. There is a depth and dynamic here not found in a lot of modern production – sounds exist in their own space, and sit in a three-dimensional plane with each other: some bursting to the front, others lurking behind. Writ large over it all is Blegvad’s sonorous baritone; at times confessional, intimate and others exultant and manic. Part spoken word, part sung, and underpinned by Andy Partridge’s dense harmonies, the vocals provide the detail to the dense landscapes of found sound, old and new instrumentation and otherworldy effects.
I’m running out of superlatives, to be honest. So I’ll quit while I’m ahead and just reiterate what I said at the start of this review: This is a stunning album, it’s a triumph of uneasy listening and it deserves a place on everyone’s Record Of The Year lists. Considering it’s sitting pretty with the likes of new releases by Grizzly Bear, Tame Impala and Animal Collective, that’s high praise indeed.
‘Gonwards’ is available to buy now from Ape House – www.ape.uk.net– be sure to check out the limited-edition boxset!