The Soften the Glare album, reviewed here back in February, was practically the first thing I’d heard from ex-Gongzilla members since the mid 1990s and proved to be a power packed trio accentuating in extremis the heavy funk vibes of that band through guitarist Bon Lozaga. And so it was something of a nice surprise to simultaneously discover the current musical whereabouts of Bon’s longtime musical partner, Hansford Rowe, in a release from a band calling themselves Gong Expresso.
Gong Expresso turn out to be a four-piece reuniting Rowe with percussionist Benoit Moerlen and drummer Francois Causse. And if the pixie-heads who constitute your average Gong fan might feel that the use of the ‘Gong’ moniker stretches the historical link a little too far, there’s no doubt that the band’s right to use the name Gong Expresso at least is inalienable. After all the Expresso II album, back in 1977 was recorded by a core line-up of these three musicians alongside Benoit’s brother Pierre, plus Mireille Bauer. It’s also true that Pierre Moerlen, in 1977, booked all gigs for his version of Gong under the name Gong-Expresso. In fact, even back as far as 1976 the musicians who had inherited the Gong name following the departure of Allen, Smyth, Hillage, Blake et al were fielding questions about the legitimacy of using it. Didier’s own take on it back then, as revealed an interview with Aymeric Leroy in 2005 taken from his book ‘L’Ecole de Canterbury’ justifies it thus: “I thought that, should Gong no longer be about Planet Gong, we’d need to find another concept. The word ‘gong’ had another meaning – a percussion instrument. So I thought we’d make music that would be gong-esque, but on a purely musical level.” And so a whole parallel strand of music under the Gong umbrella emerged and has continued to evolve. Until Pierre Moerlen died in 2005, albums under his name continued to appear involving multiple percussionists and funky keyboard work, and even since, perhaps confusingly, a wholly separate outfit from Gong Expresso. called PMGong, continue to perform in France, rather splendidly as it turns out (here they are, performing the track ‘Expresso‘). Presumably they include members of that last Pierre Moerlen line-up.
On hearing that the fourth member of Gong Expresso was something of a young turk (of such vintage that he could be the son or even grandson of any of the players!), I expected Gong Expresso to continue in the same heavy vein as Gongzilla. Nothing could be further from the truth: ‘Decadence’ is an album of such delicious subtlety that a greater contrast with Soften the Glare could be harder to find. Instead we find stately tempos, gentle inflections from all instruments and a real devotion to creating a mood rather than an ostentatious display of technique. Julien Sandiford turns out to be a jazz guitarist of exquisite touch.
The album sets the tone with the superb title track which may be the release’s highlight. The band have crafted a melody worthy of Didier Malherbe’s best lines with Hadouk. A delightful initial guitar theme is embellished with a lick here and there and strummed backdrop, before a rolling bass line, progressive chords and electric lines propel the piece forwards. There’s even a brief dual line between Sandiford and Benoit which recalls the cyclical themes of brother Pierre.
This track sets the bar high. ‘Toumani’, which you’ll find as a sampler on the Gong Expresso website, maintains the dreamy, laid-back approach, with vibraphone soloing from Benoit Moerlen which is more Gary Burton than Gong – hints of the Burton/Swallow album ‘Hotel Hello’ here in its passive, reflective mood. This ambience is repeated in slightly cheesier style in ‘Frevo’, which swings along bossa nova style, backed by Francois Causse’s hand percussion. The trademark PMG style, repetition of a tuned percussion theme with other instruments falling into line and then deviating, is probably only really apparent on ‘Eastern Platinum’, a marginally more driving piece.
With Benoit Moerlen’s role in this band to provide much of the accompanying ambience – there are few solos – much of the lead work falls to Canadian guitarist Sandiford, who chooses his notes with the utmost care and precision. His calling card appears to be his restatement of melodies to add a few apposite extra notes to fill the acres of space that exist in each piece. But Rowe also takes the lead in places, notably with aquatic effects on the excellent ‘The Importance of Common Things’.
This is an album of surprising eloquence, hidden depths and overall one of delicious reflection. It would appear the Rowe/Sandiford collaboration emerged from a trio they perform in together called HR3, which could well be my next port of call.