getting from a to b - gwei-lo by gwei-lo

Posted by Barry Timms

Standing in the aisle of a jolting First Great Western carriage, I’m thinking that, were I a budding surfer, such a challenge to my balance might perhaps be useful. With my hip hitched on the corner of a lucky someones seat for stability and threatening to flip down their folded-up flap of a table with one more badly laid rail the scene is set and all too familiar for most of us. Time to switch off, then. Or rather switch on: for once, my Discman has managed to retain its charge in my absence. Ive listened to Gwei-los self-titled instrumental album perhaps twice by this point. As music, it still gives me that feeling of something demanding and alien, and my ears have yet to tame it into an easier listen. I know I cant comfortably read a book standing up like this, so now is the almost-perfect opportunity to really listen. Listen to track.

On pressing play, the first sounds break from a chaos of frustration. The opening guitar chords are played bluntly, as if caught up in a straightjacket. So frenetic is the energy, this opener could burn out at any second. However, like accepting the four walls of a cell, the music begins to relax into this confinement. The mood is of someone desperate to believe in mind over matter, though yet to be fully convinced. With each approaching bar, there is always the risk of the drums exploding and ricocheting out of control, like the hoarded junk of a spare-room cupboard breaking free in one last lease of life. A milky-sounding keyboard manages to coax the other instruments in U.R.R. into the simple, beautiful traces of a remembered melody. Yet the underlying sense of unrest and dissatisfaction forever threatens to obliterate, or worse perhaps simply forget.

When I ask Gav Johnston, who plays bass on the album, how this music came about, he tells me, When Gwei-lo first got together we set a musical agenda to simply write the music for films that could never be made. He apologises for this answer, thinking it hopelessly inadequate, and adding only that, We tried to cover the extremes of emotions from extreme fear to beauty.

This gets me thinking about films, and what it is that often makes the music written for them recognisable as film music. But the surroundings interrupt my thoughts at this point. Being on a train is also considered rather filmic, and countless scenes from so many genres play briefly across my mind: melodramatic gestures on platforms, black and white carriage scenes (with the set being swayed far too evenly by the special effects assistants), locomotives with monstrous funnels carving across orange African plains…

My own journey could benefit from a little drama, I think, noticing that the sounds in my ears are actually adding a certain edge to the experience. The music seems to be acting as an editing process for my senses causing me zoom in on certain details and gloss over others, imbuing passengers and furnishings with significance, tension and emotion. I think of Gav explaining the range of emotions the band hoped to cover with this album, and try to pinpoint where Ive been mentally during the last couple of tracks, wondering if its where they intended. Im also wondering whats around the corner. It’s like standing up on this train (almost an hour now): I know that I am moving and getting somewhere, but not being able to look ahead I cant tell where. Theres just the darkness outside. I cant see it moving, but I know its rushing past.

There is a sense, then, of trusting the progression. In most of the tracks on this album, a theme will repeat, sometimes nearing the point of monotony. Something engages me sufficiently to resist flicking to the next track, however, and I hear the current one out. Sure enough, the near-monotony becomes a kind of membrane through which a new theme breaks, or more interestingly an inversion of the original theme. A few added rhythmic notes or a sparing sliver of harmony cause what was cold and abrasive to become empathic and body-temperature. Cellsong, the track that comes to mind, develops a circling meditation, alternating a feeling of boredom and one of impatient aggravation. It begins with a restless snare pattern, like the sound of fingers drumming on a waiting-room chair, accompanied by a looped, almost non-human vocal sample. Repeatedly, this arrangement breaks down to the naked riff of an aggrieved guitar. The sound is standoffish and resistant, the minimal harmonies emerging only begrudgingly. Just at the point where the track could close without even contemplating resolution, it seems to begin again, quieter and more delicately this time, as though already regretting the fierce front with which it began. The guitar returns, having shrugged off its former grit and fuzz, elegantly filling what was a stark arrangement with lace-like bridging notes, as if attempting to repair damage caused in a previous discomposed moment.

Having really become quite drawn in by this point, I look around at the others standing in the aisle, checking they are equally engrossed in their own distractions, a little paranoid that the music is showing on my face. Listening to music through headphones can make it intensely private, and the space Im stood in feels inappropriate.

Another hour and a half still to go before I reach my destination. But the album is drawing to a close - I can tell from the opening chords of the final track, Dont Try (Hank), which seem to be beginning to say something that, once said, will require nothing more to follow. Gav from Gwei-lo tells me, Hank is basically Charles Bukowski. Al, the bands guitarist, had introduced Gav to Bukowskis writing. The writer is subsequently a firm favourite of both members. “Dont try” is engraved on Bukowskis gravestone, Gav informs me. We dedicated the tune to him because he would have probably hated it and the band.

A guitar picks its way calmly over an ascending bass line, accompanied by keyboard chords that with a musical leap of the imagination could almost be the soft sound of breaking chalk. Drums add a fourth layer, a second keyboard a fifth, and the parts weave lightly through each other, creating something as delicate as a spider web. Like the threads of such a web, the emerging music is deceptively strong: not even the discordant surprise of accidental notes nor the occasional piercing chime of the keyboard played high and at an almost incongruous volume seem able to rupture the progression of the track. The parts become louder and higher, the harmonies tightening, as if building an adult lullaby. It is an ambivalent and overwhelming listening experience any immediate enjoyment of its beauty and simplicity wrestles against an urge to grow up and leave behind such uncomplicated pleasures to those still in childhood and infancy. I almost feel caught out, as though I only just stopped myself from recoiling, and as if this has somehow been observed. I recall Gavs having noted that Bukowski would most likely not have approved, and wonder if the music might evoke a similar reaction in him.

The melody of the final track withdraws for a moment, reduced to the light pulsing of keyboards, and my question becomes forgotten as the track begins to play out the lightest splash of cymbals and a distant twinkle of chiming keyboards scattered over the deepest bass imaginable. I am reminded of vinyl, renown for its scope to reproduce such extremes in treble and bass. All the curious shades of grey through which my ears have been led over the past forty minutes seem to have been teased apart and, to a degree, ordered. The fading strains of the album have a peculiar clarity that imprints them on the memory. I feel like Ive arrived, even though the train still has a way to go and Im still standing up with the others.

March 2001, Barry Timms

March 9th, 2001 | Residents, Reviews, Reading Room, Barry Timms

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