Album number 2 in the post Daevid Allen era and the press release (plus additional words from frontman Kavus Torabi on the recent BBC Radio 6 session) for ‘The Universe Also Collapses’ makes much of the band seeking to establish its own identity as a unit, away from the ‘guest’ contributions of the last album where Didier Malherbe, Steve Hillage and (posthumously) Daevid Allen all took their bows. In truth that identity had already been marked out definitively on ‘Rejoice I’m Dead!’, as a band with a new effervescent frontman melded trademark Gong angular riffing and spacey glissando with their own complex compositions. Alongside ‘Zero To Infinity’ it was undoubtedly the finest Gong work since the Trilogy era.
More pertinently for me was whether ‘Universe’ could continue this unexpectedly high benchmark. Soundings from those in the know suggested a lot of excitement around this album, which has emerged as a somewhat lopsided 4-track album, which on an old LP would have separated itself into a side 2 of three tracks, with the ‘main’ piece appearing on the whole of side 1. Presumably this is how the shocking pink vinyl version actually materialises.
‘Forever Reoccuring’, the aforementioned 20 minute excursion appears to follow the devotional template Kavus Torabi was setting out on his recent solo EP ‘Solar Divination’, built on a central theme containing hints of more than one classic track from ‘You’ in the way the ambience slowly builds towards its much anticipated break-outs. There’s also a reference, intended or otherwise, to ‘A PHPs Advice’ in one of the riffs. When I first heard this track, I thought ‘wow’, this is ‘A Sprinkling of Clouds’ mark 2. Then I had my doubts the piece merited its full outing. But then it slowly ate away at me to the extent that when on checking for the twentieth time to see how good it was, I realised that it had me stitched up like a kipper… Unlike ‘Clouds’ or ‘Master Builder’, it ebbs and flows, successively crescendoing towards various climaxes before dropping away again. Highlights are the superb obtuse guitar solo when the piece first breaks from Kavus (the only such on the album, a shame as it is arguably his finest suit), and even better, at around 12 minutes in a brief rising soprano sax theme as more and more instruments join the fold, either in accompaniment or as counterpoints. This could well be the killer riff that this opus was crying out for, and incidentally comprised the centrepiece of the condensed version on the BBC Live session. Then to some Hillageesque skysaw soloing from Fabio Golfetti before the piece winds back down into more Golfettti glissando with a vocal section very reminiscent of Daevid’s last outtings with the University of Errors. And then it’s gone, surely not 20 minutes of listening already.
‘If Never I’m And Ever You’ is ‘Forever’’s polar opposite, a 2 minute piece whose jaunty central riff is about as quantifiably Gongish as it is possible to get, throws in vocal lines from everywhere into the increasing melee and has a rather nice Malherbish fanfare from Ian East to finish. That said, it is relatively benign fayre compared to what is to come next. For it is clear from the opening few bars of ‘My Sawtooth Wake’ that this could well be the centrepiece of the album. In its 13 or so minutes it rarely deviates from its main premise, a jerky, heavy rhythm which stutters along memorably with all 5 members buying into its magnificence. This is ‘Fohat’ on speed, with disquieting glissando, pounding bass, and screaming solos from guitar and sax. And even when it drops down to moments of vocal reflection, it never quite loses that air of menace before all elements combine in cataclysmic glory. This is marvellous, marvellous stuff with pride of place going to some outstanding drumming from Cheb Nettles recalling Pip Pyle at his frenetic best.
If ‘Sawtooth’ is, overall, the album’s standout track, then the finest moment is reserved for the concluding part of the final track ‘The Elemental’. A pleasing Sixties sounding ditty, Kavus’ harmonium et al, gets ever more rocky before arriving at the heavy crashing guitar riffs reminiscent of ‘Kapita’ on the last album, but of course, as this is Gong, throws screaming sax into the mix too. “Remember there is only now”, sung in (4-part?) dissonant harmony is the album’s evocative crying call, propelled along by thunderous bass from Dave Sturt. The whoop which signals the end of the first round of this unforgettable chorus is one of sheer exultation at the album’s signal moment. Throughout the album it has been clear that, lyrically, the gnomes are long departed, but Gong’s cosmic identity has endured. Far removed from the sharp characterisation of Daevid Allen’s storytelling, this is a much more detached narrative which ponders the science of life. And it did leave me thinking: is ‘Remember there is only now’ an unfathomable cosmic statement about the universe starting or ending in the same moment in time; an imploring for us all to live in the present; or something unintentionally cheeky about this Gong incarnation being here and here to stay? I’ll leave that for you to ponder…
Postscript: the band play this entire album as part of a quite astonishing evening currently on tour around the UK – 2 hours of Gong with support from Ed Wynne playing (with a new band) his superb solo album ‘Shimmer Into Nature’. Remaining tour dates below