The Universe Also Collapses by GongRelease date: May 10, 2019
What’s in a name? The name Gong is writ large, and boldly, on the sleeve of The Universe Also Collapses, the band’s first record written and produced without the input of founder member and conceptual mastermind Daevid Allen since his death in early 2015. Some listeners are wondering aloud if this can truly be Gong, without any of the band’s original members, especially Allen, who has long been seen as the band’s guiding light. However, circumstances are everything: this is not the first Gong album produced without Allen’s input, as the band has shifted line-up frequently and extensively during its lengthy existence. It should also be noted that not only did the current line-up, under the aegis of Knifeworld’s Kavus Torabi, have Allen’s blessing to continue under the Gong moniker, Allen actually encouraged them to do so. Allen repeatedly expressed the view in interviews that he saw himself as an instigator: that the collaborations and ever-shifting line-ups of the band created a “family” of bands with a shared creative vision, all spreading the Gong worldview. The new-look Gong is no different in this respect – it’s just that this particular creation has managed to outlive Allen himself.
Whilst Gong’s previous record, Rejoice! I’m Dead! was entirely successful, the spirit of Allen permeated its very fabric. His illness and subsequent death also gave the new-look Gong something to write very specifically about, an emotional core and focus born of necessity. With Allen’s passing, and the record’s completion, the new-look Gong found themselves closing one chapter of the Book Of Gong and opening a new one, looking for new horizons to strive towards. No-one – least of all Allen himself – would have been content with a pallid, imitative Gong. So: whither Gong now?
The Universe Also Collapses feels very much like a band re-discovering its essential essence. Encouraged by Allen’s previous assertions that he wanted the band to strike out into new musical waters, the Gong of 2019 have seized on a more improvised, heavily thematic approach and crafted something really rather special. This record strikes a wonderful balance between the new and the familiar: songs and lyrics that powerfully evoke the spirit of “classic” Gong, combined with music that feels effortlessly fresh and genuinely exploratory in a way that Gong as a unit probably haven’t been since their 1970s heyday.
Nowhere is this re-commitment to musical exploration more evident than in the lengthy opening track, Forever Reoccurring. Surfing in on a blissed-out tide of synth and woozy guitars, it percolates slowly through distinct changes of mood, its unhurried and unpretentious vibe perhaps most reminiscent of the vast open musical landscapes of 1974’s You. When the real fireworks arrive, courtesy of duels between Kavus Torabi and Fabio Golfetti’s cosmic guitars and Ian East’s stentorian saxophone, the whole is lent a powerful weight by Cheb Nettles’ powerful drumming and Dave Sturt’s chunky bass, Torabi dropping mystical vocal passages into the calmer oases within the musical maelstrom. The record showcases two similar and yet distinct sides to the band’s writing, with Forever Reoccuring and the similarly expansive My Sawtooth Wake providing longer-form musical adventures, and the other two, shorter, tracks showcasing the band’s ability to construct more concise material. The spiky and mildly addictive If Never I’m And Ever You crams a lot into its two-and-a-half minutes, whilst the almost anthemic closer, The Elemental, brandishes acoustic guitar and a memorable chorus to great effect.
The Universe Also Collapses is a voyage of self-discovery; a journey into inner and outer space that has allowed the band to mythologise their own self-discovery, the sort of self-referencing fractal thinking that Allen would no doubt have delighted in. The album’s longer tracks showcase the new line-ups talent for improvisation, yet for all the expansive playing, the tracks never feel like they’re spiralling out of the band’s control. Lyrically, the topic is time – and how our concepts of past, present and future are just that: our concepts, alone. Rather than a book of discrete chapters, read (the past) and unread (the future), time is perhaps best imagined as a continuum of the present, with no neat demarcations. The Elemental reaffirms this idea, and reminds us that we should be present and focus on the now, which is all we can ultimately control. “Remember, there is only now!”
Naturally, there will be some fans for whom there can be no Gong without Allen’s physical presence. However, it’s hard to imagine that the mischievous and inventive Allen would not have approved mightily of the music and ideas that make up The Universe Also Collapses – musically, it recalls the band’s best work, and also successfully distils Big Ideas about the universe and human experience into song form with a skill that shows that Allen’s influence is as strong as ever. Rejoice! I’m Dead! was a triumph, a joyous and affectionate wake that would have made a perfect final chapter. However, The Universe Also Collapses effortlessly manages to both forge a new path for the band and reinforce the very things that made Gong such a beloved institution in the first place. Bold, colourful, atmospheric and truly absorbing, it’s a 43-minute psychedelic voyage that compares favourably with the band’s best work. When you consider Allen’s determination that Gong should outlive his physical manifestation on Earth and his faith in the new-look band, you have to feel that he knew better than anyone that he had the right people for the job. A truly miraculous rebirth.