Gong Expresso - Decadence album review

Bass is the place on Gong men’s reunion

Gong Expresso - Decadence album artwork

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Having cut his teeth as a jobbing jazz bassist in New York’s club circuit, Hansford Rowe knows how to make things happen within a song. It’s a capacity that propelled him onto the international stage after his recruitment to Pierre Moerlen’s Gong in the mid-70s.

A universe away from Daevid Allen’s playful Pot-Head Pixies, Moerlen’s iteration of the franchise delivered vibrant, high-octane jazz fusion, with Rowe’s sinuous playing providing the spine to their work.

In recent years, in addition to exploring microtonal music, Rowe has quietly moved into jazzier territory via his Moments duo and HR3, the latter featuring guitarist Julien Sandiford. Rowe’s brand new reunion with fellow PM Gong alumni Benoît Moerlen (vibes and marimba) and François Causse (drums and percussion) co-opts Sandiford, whose illuminating presence is very welcome indeed.

Anyone expecting fast fusion thrills may struggle with this often downtempo offering, yet the gentle exploration of their spacious sound world sparkles with a bewitching intensity.

Rowe’s lucid runs frequently set the scene, with Moerlen and Sandiford carrying the principal tunes, several written by the guitarist. The youngest member of the ensemble, not even born when his fellow bandmates were recording with Pierre Moerlen, his writing revels in supple explorations of melody and harmony. With a distortion-free tone, the care and grace with which he deploys his notes occasionally evokes the ringing purity of Bill Frisell or the more languid rumination found within early-period Pat Metheny.

Lithe, lean and always on point, the fluidity of Moerlen’s tumbling vibes often take on a pianistic aspect, trickling over the see-sawing chords during Toumani or the bright, thematic figures of Zephyr. This latter tune in particular, with growling bass, sometimes recalls the kind of circuitous piece Gilgamesh might have tackled, while it provides Causse with a speedy breakout.

The music of Decadence is uncluttered and largely unhurried, and it’s blessed with a rich connectivity that fizzes between the gifted players. At the heart of this album is a simple, precision-driven transparency, a feeling that the group are entirely focused on pursuing the clarity within its compositions.

Chilled but far from lethargic, a special, intimate atmosphere pervades this recording, and the expressiveness found within this material is particularly rewarding.

Sid Smith

Sid's feature articles and reviews have appeared in numerous publications including Prog, Classic Rock, Record Collector, Q, Mojo and Uncut. A full-time freelance writer with hundreds of sleevenotes and essays for both indie and major record labels to his credit, his book, In The Court Of King Crimson, an acclaimed biography of King Crimson, was substantially revised and expanded in 2019 to coincide with the band’s 50th Anniversary. Alongside appearances on radio and TV, he has lectured on jazz and progressive music in the UK and Europe.  

A resident of Whitley Bay in north-east England, he spends far too much time posting photographs of LPs he's listening to on Twitter and Facebook.