PRINT October 1996


Gastr del Sol

On the cover of Upgrade & Afterlife (Drag City), a pair of boots explode in an aqueous burst on the floor, as though the person solidly implanted in them had just disintegrated in this splash. Roman Signer’s image suits GASTR DEL SOL’s latest CD perfectly: the musical texture is unpredictable, its apparent simplicity giving way to sudden explosive bursts. Upgrade & Afterlife is shot through with musical luminaries: here, Chicagoans David Grubbs and Jim O’Rourke are assisted by such collaborators as Gene Coleman (on bass clarinet), Tony Conrad (violin), and Günter Muller (amplified percussion). Gastr del Sol’s musical universe is filled with juxtapositions, with the more or less peaceful coexistence between written and improvised parts, instrumental and vocal sequences, and acoustic and electronic manipulations. For three years, Grubbs and O’Rourke have constantly futzed the musical boundaries of the hybrid genre of “innovation,” one they seem to spontaneously reinvent; the band specializes above all in bringing together sources as disparate as rock, folk, and contemporary experimental music (especially Cage), as well as Satie, Stravinsky, atonal music, and the found noises of the street and the apartment. That said, Gastr del Sol’s particular brand of innovation bears more resemblance to funambulism than to any one of the band’s scholarly references. Even more than the duo’s previous releases, Upgrade & Afterlife balances on invisible wires: the more or less repetitive melodies and random tones seem to obey their own laws of musical gravity, until the passing sound of a boiling teakettle, some miked reverb, or even a few words sung by Grubbs sets the whole delicate thing crumbling, scattering in a space whose equilibrium is even more precarious and capricious.

When O’Rourke says that “every record has to be better than the last,” you believe him, because he talks like a mountain climber: his is a high-altitude balancing act, and he aims even higher. In fact, as his art becomes more sophisticated, it simultaneously becomes more commonplace and simple, even more immediate. The sonorous chemistry announced by the word “Afterlife” is strange and paradoxical, for it certainly has something terminal about it, but something unthreatening and gentle as well. The other half of the equation, “Upgrade,” emphasizes the project’s luminosity and economy: Gastr del Sol seems to go less in the direction of performative virtuosity and more toward a sound that approaches triviality. On the CD, texture overrides the shock of the sound effects, as well as the silences and slow progressions found on earlier releases, to become clearer and more straightforward. It’s as if texture and melody were playing an elaborate game of hide-and-seek.

Certainly their most limpid album to date, Upgrade & Afterlife leaves the harsher and more violent aspects of most experimental music far behind to allow us to traverse a universe where the air becomes more rarefied the more easily you breathe: aptly enough, “Our exquisite replica of ‘eternity’” is the title of the first sequence.

Translated from the French by Jeanine Herman.