Post-rock boasts a long lineage of outfits driven by glassy guitars. Though birthed from the oft-unpredictable, highly surrounding-soaked likes of Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock, Television’s Marquee Moon or Slint’s Spiderland, much of what has come to define the post-rock genre, be it June of 44’s and Mogwai’s tangled multi-guitar attacks or Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s and Explosions in the Sky’s cinematic crescendos, is driven by the domain of the guitarist. All that six-string texture is what led one prescient observer, after all, to half-dismiss the genre as “rock music for people who read too many books”.
Just don’t lecture on the subject to Parachutes for Gordo. The mostly British trio put aside some of their DIY stringencies and recently entered the studio to capture LP number four, Best Understood By Children and Animals. (It’s a Stravinsky reference.) The result is an enthralling, throbbing, and incredibly percussion-driven document. Yes, the almost entirely instrumental LP has its share of crystalline and delay-triggered guitar textures (some quite good ones, it should be noted). But what will really grab you by the shirt-collar and refuse to let go is the work of the band’s bottom end – bassist John Harvey and drummer Mark Glaister. These guys, on Best Understood, are firing on all cylinders.
Gordo always have embraced their peculiar place in contemporary underground rock. Past records, especially 2017’s Possibility of Not, reveled in herky-jerky art-punk-isms. That’s almost entirely not the modus operandi for the new record, in that it’s a departure for a band that are fond of departing things. Best Understood, pensive and even sometimes gray by Gordo standards, is the band at their most thought-providing, expansive, and panoramic. Some tracks – “A Dingo Are My Discos” and the nine-minute closer, “Alcpacacino” – flirt with jam-band scope so much that they sometimes border on trance-inducing. At times, bassist Harvey’s speaker-shaking presence in the mix even hints at elements of dub.
Some songs captivate. The record’s excellent second track, “Markhor Parkour”, which was released last year to tease out the LP’s arrival, is a volatile beast. Though guitarist Laura Lee shifts between crunchy chords and more pointillistic half-notes, drummer Glaister aggressively pounds the off-kilter backbeat into your cerebellum with undeniably juicy lines. When, at the two-minute mark, Lee joins the “chorus” with a series of staggered arpeggios, it’s enthralling stuff.
Five songs into the seven-song document lies the smirking-titled “Toucan Play at That Game”, where Glaister again unfurls a captivating drum lead, this time backed by a driving bass. And Lee positively soars with measures that are lofty-minded but also incredibly listenable; it sits almost at the intersection between math-rock and guitar-preened power-pop. Though there’s a dirgy descent four minutes into the song that is one of the record’s most unexpected and unexpectedly good moments, it’s not quite as gripping or destabilizing as previous Gordo works like “Anemone to Manatee”.
The record is nothing if not consistent. “Snakes for the Blind”, the LP’s sixth song, revisits the glassy guitar and pounding drum routine – this time to slightly lesser effect. While the opener, “Dalai Llama”, flirts (here and there) with the punk allegiances of the band’s earlier work, it is not a theme that’s carried throughout. Indeed, the closing “Alcpacacino” could’ve used more eruptions.
Best Understood is, indeed, best understood as a kind of experiment in tone control and scope. Gordo have proven repeatedly adept at highly colorful art-punk, complete with rhythms that would make most math-rockers swoon. On the new LP, the band members continue to display their best selves but, this time, it’s an exercise in crafting an inter-compositional narrative. There are a few bumps in the road, sure, but it’s a worthy and unexpected addition to the post-rock canon – and a throttling one at that. – Justin Vellucci, PopMatters, Feb. 14, 2020