In preparation for my first listen to Konkret Musik, the sixth album from spectacular Swedish sound wizards Gösta Berlings Saga, I did something I’d never done before a review: I listened to every one of their previous albums top to bottom, in chronological order. Each CD I pulled from the shelf prompted fond memories, but hearing them in context was like experiencing the music for the first time, and I marveled at their progression over the course of this marathon listening session. It was something of a refresher course not dissimilar to the effect a TV series recap has after a long hiatus between seasons.
GBS are undoubtedly one of the more diverse, original and forward-thinking bands today. They also truly defy categorization. Symphonic, cinematic, jazzy, avant-garde, electronic… where does one slot them in? They can switch gears at the drop of a hat and sound as though they were born to play that style all along. Their music often has an elasticity to it, like it’s impossible for them to go too far in any one direction without their core sound pulling them back in the nick of time. But what is that sound? The only label that makes any kind of sense is the impossibly broad ‘Instrumental’, because… well, they are that, anyway. This new album finds them sharpening their focus on experimentation with sound – a key element of all their work to date – and taking a new approach to their compositions.
Unlike previous albums that consisted of six to eight tracks of sometimes epic length, GBS boldly eschew that prog cliché – among others – and embrace a different design with this new release, crafting twelve grittier, more concise pieces. There are plenty of melodies, loads of groove, and intriguing chord patterns, but the overall presentation seems to come from a new place, somehow. The dozen tracks are like little bursts of never before-heard sound, each one a distinct but interlocking segment that eventually forms a cohesive whole. What’s more, the band have made alterations to their instrumentation, ramping up the use of electronics and employing a vast range of synthesizers to delicious effect. There is still guitar and bass, of course, still drums and piano and mellotron; but this new platter finds GBS sailing ever further from the norms of rock tradition, gleefully flinging open doors to discover new worlds of unpicked flowers – without ever looking back. Now this is progress.
The wide range of compositions on Konkret Musik are compelling and evocative. The hypnotic groove of opening track Släpad conjures visions of future denizens desperately traversing some post-apocalyptic landscape. Vinsta Guldklocka could be the accompanying soundtrack to racing down the Autobahn, as the blur of scenery and cars swirl together like streaks of paint in the driver’s vision. Basement Traps has a likeable, driving simplicity and even displays shades of The Blue Man Group. Close To Home is a mysterious synth and guitar composition that relies solely on its gentle flavour to convey a striking beauty. The furious pounding beat of the title track Konkret Musik calms briefly to a tranquil, tinkling guitar part before slowly returning to full throttle and sounding like a perverse mix of Kraftwerk and King Crimson. The ominous Closing Borders sounds like the album’s bleak cover art put to music. The track feels like a brief homage to John Carpenter, and effectively serves as an intro to the album’s centrepiece cut, the outstanding To Never Return. With its thick, relentless drum groove dotted by handsome guitar and keyboard melodies, the dramatic piece gradually blooms into a darkly alluring climax as though co-written by some sort of futuristic Rachmaninoff.
A punky, garage band vibe underpins the opening of The Pugilist, but somehow the song flips to a pure GBS track without us noticing it happen. The wobbly, underwater sound of A Fucking Good Man grows ever more fragile and soon recalls that nightmare feeling years ago when you realized your cassette player was about to chew your favourite tape beyond repair (for younger readers who may be puzzled by this reference: just trust me). The organ and guitar piece A Question of Currency ends the album on a softer note, with just enough of that quirky GBS touch to keep it from sounding too normal or common. It’s an effective and starkly beautiful closing that might give the listener pause to simply sit in silent reflection.
Konkret Musik is above all else a thrillingly unique and varied album that shows once again that Gösta Berlings Saga are the sum of their parts; each of them solid players who have carved out their own place as a respected band with a string of first-rate albums, and nary a weak spot to be found. It’s lush, otherworldly, vibrant, and downright mesmerizing. And I am 100% positive it will be turning up on ‘Best Of 2020’ lists the world over… it sure will be on mine. Highest possible recommendation!
Release date: 24 July
Släpad · Vinsta Guldklocka · Basement Traps · Close to Home · Konkret Musik · Closing Borders · To Never Return · Instrument VI · The Pugilist · A Fucking Good Man · Förbifart Stockholm · A Question of Currency
David Lundberg – Fender Rhodes, Grand Piano, Mellotron & Synthesizers
Gabriel Tapper – Bass Guitar & Moog Taurus Pedals
Rasmus Booberg – Guitars & Synthesizers
Alexander Skepp – Drums & Percussion
Jesper Skarin – Percussion