Saturday, April 01, 2017
RECORD OF THE DAY: GASTR DEL SOL 'UPGRADE AND AFTERLIFE'
I remember the week this came out. It was 1996, I was 24 years old and working at Shock Records - a fantastic halfway house/sheltered workshop/place of employment for many a misfit during the era - which also happened to be the distributor of the Drag City label, and I bought the handsome gatefold 2LP the moment it hit the shelves. After all, it was the mid '90s, we were young, dumb and full of enthusiasm, we read The Wire magazine monthly (hell, we fucking subscribed to it!) and 'post-rock' had yet to become the '90s version of prog-rock. Huh? Prog-rock was a pretty good idea for a few years - expand the parameters of the basic 4/4 rock format into something a little more adventurous, and the genre itself did indeed produce many great albums - but it soon crawled up its backside, the pomposity and necessary skill-set became de rigeur and thus the back-to-basics approach of punk rock seemed like a good idea a few years later. That's simplifying things grossly, but not inaccurately, and isn't a thousand miles removed from the story of post-rock, something I regarded as quite a good idea circa approx. 1993 - 1997, but soon thereafter felt that it devolved into a big, tedious noodlefest featuring a hoard of tiresome indie rockers who were awfully well-schooled in their instruments and weren't afraid to show you how. I think practicing your craft and being dextrous on your instrument is a good thing, but not everyone uses it for good.
Now, where was I? Gastr del Sol were David Grubbs and Jim O'Rourke. I'd been following Grubbs since I bought my first Squirrel Bait LP in 1988 and my brother hung out with him for a day in Chicago in 1990 (a curious incident which happened because he happened to attend a Bastro show - Grubbs' band at the time), and O'Rourke had already made his name with various solo albums and his involvement with outfits like Illusion Of Safety and Brise-Glace. Anyway, GDS only existed between the years 1993 - 1998, but they were prolific, and lately I've found myself returning to their works for a 21st-century reappraisal, and, at least for me, their cerebral brand of constipated non-rock holds up pretty well. Their last LP, Camefleur, from 1998, is undoubtedly their most accessible effort, but Upgrade & Afterlife is the one I return to.
GDS were a real amalgamam of Grubbs' and O'Rourke's musical interests and proclivities. Some of their albums - not this one, but more so 1994's Crookt, Crackt, or Fly - had a slightly Albini-ish Chicago math-rock thing going on, but it was never the main focus of what they did. GDS were pure egghead material, more like a laboratory of sound for Grubbs and O'Rourke to indulge in. Songs often sound like sketches, not fully formed which never play out to a nattural conclusion but instead fall apart or simply abruptly stop when least expected. Ennio Morricone, Derek Bailey, John Fahey, Cecil Taylor, Scott Walker: they were all buzz words back in the '90s, and they figure heavily in the makeup of what GDS is. Which doesn't mean GDS are merely a collage of their influences, because they were unmistakably Grubbs and O'Rourke (and various helpers) in their execution. I loved this stuff back in the day, but jumped off the post-rock gravy train screaming for my life about a year later, burying my head in other pursuits. 20 years on, and I still don't hate it.