February 18, 2024

The track Empty is the perfect summation of the album, and the mandatory closer, as nothing could really follow it… There is a big guitar finish again, but the solo this time, although again having that big Gilmour sound, seems to deliberately avoid any stirring peaks, instead using every string bend and mournful vibrato to drive another nail into humanity’s metaphorical coffin. Honestly, it’s that powerful, and that bleak. You’ll either adore it or bury it in a lead-lined box…

The name Gildenlöw will be one which is instantly familiar to a great many contemporary progressive rock fans, for sure. However, a good proportion of them may be more used to seeing the forename ‘Daniel’, that being the founder and leader of Swedish band Pain Of Salvation, who has also collaborated with Transatlantic among other things. Kristoffer, however, may also be familiar to many, being not only the brother of Daniel but also the original bass player with Pain Of Salvation, for a dozen years before his departure to plough his own furrow in 2006, becoming an in-demand session musician. In more recent years, he has joined a reunited line-up of Kayak, with whom he has recorded three albums, but since 2012 he has released several solo albums, of which the latest, Empty, is the fifth. It would have been the fourth, or even joint third, as it was originally slated for release in 2020 alongside the album Homebound, but was eventually put on hold, with 2021 seeing Let Me Be A Ghost released as album number four in the meantime. Happily, this loosely conceptual affair looking at our responses to the potential futility of existence, has now seen the light of day. The word happily, however, should be used guardedly, as this is, as may be anticipated, not exactly a joyous trip through an hour of laughs – though isn’t that just the recipe to appeal to the palate of a good many of us prog fans? Because we do enjoy a good wallow from time to time, especially when we can take the opportunity to wax all philosophical while we do so! And this is certainly an excellent opportunity to do just that, although the music for a good deal of the time, displays an almost contradictory sense of grandeur and – whisper it – optimism.

Kristoffer Gildenlow – contemplating this review…

The opening track, Time To Turn The Page, is in many ways a look at the album in microcosm. Opening in gloomy, reflective mode, around halfway through the song it stops and, in the ensuing pause, comes the sure and certain knowledge that the drums are about to enter, ushering the full band in alongside them – and it doesn’t disappoint, as a hugely stirring coda, complete with a defiantly grandstanding Gilmour-esque guitar solo, suddenly lifts us to a new level. You get a lot of that dichotomy throughout this album, and it almost always works just as well as it does here. That ‘pregnant pause’ trick is revisited later, around halfway through the album, on the second longest track Down We Go (nearly eight minutes), itself a contender for outstanding song on the album. This time out, the song itself appears fully formed and likely to keep on the same approximate course for its duration, until that pause comes in, this time extended to such a duration of tension that you practically have time to go next door to alert the neighbours that it’s all about to get ‘big’. And ‘big’ it certainly gets, with a the spirit of Dave Gilmour once again invoked in a swaggering guitar solo of such pomp and majesty that it just stops short of inviting Comfortably Numb to come outside and settle things in the car park. It’s a huge track. And it’s not alone, with several other pieces utilising a similar air-punching sense of drama to make their point. He’s Not Me brings along that big guitar again, accompanied by some equally stirring slide accompaniment, while the male and female vocal pairing of Black And White carries distinct overtones of Mostly Autumn at their most anthemic.

There are plenty of other thematic elements, however – this album is no one-trick pony, however good that trick might be. End Of Their Road is mostly restrained and reflective, but for one short guitar outburst, while the angushed Harbinger Of Sorrow sees Gildenlöw delivering the song in such anguished tones that one briefly fears that he is in the throes of a particularly painful kidney stone. Turn It All Around is slightly left-field and unsettling, whereas Means To An End sees a much cleaner, brighter guitar sound being employed in a way which is more Knopfler than Gilmour, and the most overt of several nods towards Dire Straits on the album, albeit at their most introspective. Rest assured, you will not be Twisting By The Pool or doing the Walk Of Life while listening to this album, let’s make that quite clear! The shortest track here, the two and a half minute The Brittle Man, is itself a quietly understated masterpiece, disturbing and uneasy in equal measure, staying with you after it finishes in a way which could have left it as a perfect album closer. That is, if it were not for the desolate hopelessness of the near ten minute title track, Empty, which has reserved that particular space and is not about to let it go.

A windswept Kristoffer Gildenlow

The track Empty is the perfect summation of the album, and the mandatory closer, as nothing could really follow it. Not just because it is of sufficient quality for that accolade, but also because it leaves the listener so drained of all hope and affirmation of life and our very existence that the idea of other music coming directly on its heels seems an absurd one, in the sense that nothing can really step in and inhabit the startling vacuum left in the listener’s soul. Opening with two minutes of what is one ambient step away from what could be described as a sort of ‘sound collage’, the bones of the song itself begin to gradually form, gradually exposing us more and more to the final truth that all is, in fact, almost certainly hopeless and, indeed, empty, and that the whole business of life, the universe and everything might just as well be restarted from scratch – essentially, Game Over, good try humanity, but you’re out of lives. There is a big guitar finish again, but the solo this time, although again having that big Gilmour sound, seems to deliberately avoid any stirring peaks, instead using every string bend and mournful vibrato to drive another nail into humanity’s metaphorical coffin. Honestly, it’s that powerful, and that bleak. You’ll either adore it or bury it in a lead-lined box. It’s the sort of song which could have a team of doctors prescribing some lighter music to be immediately applied as an emotional palate cleanse (‘Nurse! Get me 33 RPM of Whitesnake, stat!!’)

All of this is to say that this is certainly an album with enormous ambition and emotional heft, most of which is effectively realised and then some. It is not a perfect album: at twelve tracks and 60 minutes I feel it is perhaps a couple of tracks too long, and one or two in the latter half of the album do not engage quite as keenly as others, possibly due in part to ‘listener fatigue’ at that point in what is an intense listen. Gildenlöw’s vocals may also be an acquired taste for some – not that his voice is poor, on the contrary it sometimes appears as if he lacks some confidence in it, and delivers much of the content in a sort of conspiratorial whisper, as if what he has to say is important and should not fall into enemy hands. This works in parts for sure, but there are places where he surely could let his voice soar as it clearly would be able to.

Those slight caveats apart, this is an album which is clearly one which has had an enormous amount of thought, time and care invested into it, and for the most part that pays off handsomely. It can be seen why this was held back until the right (post-pandemic perhaps) time came to release it. It’s an album which may not hit the spot right away, but given time to absorb it, surely will. If shiny, happy music makes you crave for more depth this is the album for you. If light and shade, with the peaks standing proud above the level ground pushes your buttons, you’ll most likely love this. And if you can listen to that title track and still come back wanting more at the end of it – then congratulations, you might have found your album of the year. Reasons to be cheerful? Nah, who needs them…