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26 January 2016

Gastr del Sol - 'Upgrade and Afterlife' (Drag City)

This was the one that really did it for me - my first Gastr release, which is a near-masterpiece like all of the records that brought Grubbs and O'Rourke together. That's a pairing that seems to make no sense on paper and ends up being the greater than the sum of two parts. The formula of Crookt, Crackt or Fly isn't deviated from too much except there is maybe less acoustic guitar choppiness and more of a unified sensibility to create some pleasing compositions - works that are about synergy rather than difference. The tracks with vocals are placed in the centre, but the starting and ending cuts are masterfully lyrics despite being instrumental. 'Our Exquisite Replica of Eternity' - what a title, what a track. It's O'Rourke who clearly takes lead here, with his 'new music' composer chops in the forefront, building things around some electroacoustic drones which move and grind slowly as the piece unfolds. It explodes, an O'Rourke trick evident in many of his records, but here recalling George Gershwin heavily, which feels forward thinking in its anachronism. It's all spinning at 45 RPM (this is not a double album but a one-and-a-half record) which gives it a sense of momentum too. The ending track is a John Fahey cover, 'Dry Bones in the Valley' (from 1975's Old Fashioned Love, if you were wondering) and it's done pretty straight, breathing through the space in the acoustic strum and showing these guys as the virtuoso musicians that they are; once Tony Conrad's violin drone comes in, the track takes on a hypnotic and incredibly melancholy tendency that intensifies until the record is over. And these songs in the middle, with Grubbs dropping his Grubbisms everywhere? Great too, for the most part. 'These are shark fins/I believe the tongue propels them' is the most quotable and wonderful-ridiculous Gastr lyric ever, making 'Rebecca Sylvester' the single most iconic Gastr del Sol track. The piano psychosis of Mirror Repair is most evident during 'The Relay', and 'Hello Spiral' brings in the McEntire drumming (after a harsh, aggressive bit of tape work by Ralf Wehowsky, sounding like John Wiese's hand to me) for the indie rock sound (but only a bit). Actually, it's 'Hello Spiral' that sounds precisely like the LP is skipping, just off-kilter enough to make it feel maddening. I obviously love this record, to the point where I read great personal emotional connections into it despite it being relentlessly avant-garde and obtuse. But it's a warm avant-garde, a celebration of art and possibilities (as the famous Roman Signer photo on the cover indicates). and maybe it sounds a bit silly or dated now but you gotta believe this 18 year old was enthralled. Upgrade & Afterlife is a map of possibilities for what music and art can do, slouching towards the cerebral but never quite abandoning the guttural. And the crazy thing is that they followed it up with something even better.

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