From Guapo’s origins as an artsy noise-rock duo in the 90s to their current standing as a quartet, founder and drummer Dave Smith has steered clear of cliché and compromise. Albums such as Five Suns (2004), Black Oni (2005) and Elixirs (2008) chronicled the trio incarnation of Guapo’s attempts to define and expand a musical vocabulary rooted in a stripped-back, somewhat aesthetic RIO-style chamber ensemble.
Yet as striking as these albums were, in hindsight they were but a preamble to 2013’s The History Of The Visitation. This marked a significant line-up change that saw Smith and bassist James Sedwards joined by ex-Cardiacs man/future Gongster Kavus Torabi and Chrome Hoof keyboard player Emmett Elvin. It also saw Guapo embrace a more demonstrative, gutsy rock aesthetic.
That boldness continues on Obscure Knowledge, a single, continuous, 43-minute suite. The band’s take-no-prisoners attitude is obvious from the word go. The album opens with a four-note bass motif ascending through a blizzard of cymbals and fractious, sustained keyboard tones. When soaring guitar and circuitous MC Escher-esque organ riffing erupts and takes flight, there are moments where we get the answer to that burning question: what would Mahavishnu Orchestra and Van der Graaf Generator have sounded like if they’d ever joined forces? The suite evolved from the band’s weekly rehearsals wherein each section was slowly accrued from a process of trial and error and selective pruning. This isn’t cerebral jazz-rock; more scarily belligerent minimalism.
Sets the benchmark by which others can be measured.
After the initial airburst of establishing themes across a Fender Rhodes morse code tapped out by Elvin, Kavus Torabi strikes one ominous guitar chord more than 60 times in the space of five minutes. Wilful and provocative, it’s like a musical dare to see who is going to blink first. With each of those tolling repetitions there comes a sense of escalating pressure and constriction, an expert raising of the temperature inexorably leading to bursting point.
Breaking down and reassembling as each new segment in the piece is introduced, Guapo’s restlessness is only stilled in the midst of some teeth-scraping sonics over halfway through the album. Even here, the fierce drones fluctuating with La Monte Young-style sonic whispers offer little respite.
Unflinchingly adventurous and every bit as brilliant as its predecessor, Obscure Knowledge not only consolidates Guapo’s progress but sets the benchmark by which others can be measured.