Expectations are often our own worst enemies. We hear an exciting, novel record for the first time and fall head over heels like starry-eyed saps. Soon after, we begin constructing the absurd mythology of a band “too big to fail.” Gazpacho’s Demon worked as the perfect lure for that trap. Haunting, bizarre and curiously beautiful, 2014’s progressive rock sleeper hit found the band firing on all creative cylinders for a career milestone – an album that, by all accounts, will go down as one of art rock’s overlooked gems. Molok, the follow-up to 2014’s masterful Demon, seemed primed for rounds of universal praise, and it’s probably going to get it. Best-of-the-year lists will likely make room for the Norwegian ensemble’s latest record. Droves of avid listeners will likely throw the album into heavy rotation. But I won’t. Gazpacho’s Molok isn’t what I hoped for, and it’s my own fault for expecting perfection.
A major reason for this lukewarm reception is the band’s approach to songwriting, which finds Ohme and company once again discarding the extended, long-form compositions of Night and Demon in favor of bite-sized chunks of sound. This wouldn’t be an issue, however, if Molok’s thematic and conceptual depth didn’t demand more from each individual track. “Algorithm” effectively grips the listener by the throat with its ominous, tribal soundscapes but loses hold just as quickly; it merely segues into another track and never truly develops beyond beleaguered sighs and pounding rhythms.
Elsewhere, “Bela Kiss” quickly earns its spot as Gazpacho’s most curious track to date. It’s an ethnic romp with little substance, not dissimilar in sound from the Italian tarantella outro of “Wizard of Altai Mountains” but without the impact. Oddly, the track isn’t attached to a more substantial centerpiece, and it doesn’t carry enough fire to warrant itself as a standalone composition. These tracks would have served well as smaller pieces in a larger whole — small segments in the vivid, sprawling sonic canvases the band has so thoroughly demonstrated its talent in coloring. “Algorithm” and “Bela Kiss” aren’t the only offenders here: they’re just the most egregious.
It’s a shame, too, because Molok is one Gazpacho’s best sounding records. “Know Your Time” sports a spacious mix that allows each instrument room to breathe, evoking the band’s trademarked ethereal wonderment with ease. But even the record’s brightest moments flicker out when put into perspective. Gorgeous as it is, “Know Your Time” is a retread of familiar territory. In many ways it’s the prototypical Gazpacho song. River-of-glass vocals? Check. Haunting atmospherics? Check. The subdued percussion of “Choir of Ancestors” is a smart production choice, allowing Ohme’s smooth vocals to take center-stage, but, ultimately, it feels a bit hollow – like an excerpt from material that wasn’t strong enough to get out of the cutting room last time around.
Despite this, Molok isn’t a poor effort, or even an average one. It’s decidedly good, but when a band has consistently raised the bar to herculean heights – Night, anyone? – it becomes progressively harder to be impressed. 2014’s Demon introduced bizarre instrumentation and unexpected twists into the group’s arsenal, but Molok merely doubles down and dumbs down. Nothing here caries the ethereal, cinematic sweep of “I’ve Been Walking, Pt. 2” and nothing hits quite as hard as Ohme’s dramatic declaration of “I lost it down the rabbit hole” in “I’ve Been Walking, Pt. 1.” Molok, in many ways, seems natural as a next step for the group: it continues to divorce the band’s sound from the sea of uninspired prog-rock tribute acts. That’s a great move, but opting for refinement over revolution only works if you’re actually upping the ante, and, sadly, that’s where Gazpacho drops the ball. Molok certainly isn’t a revolution, but it’s not really a refinement, either: it’s a band in suspended animation.