Progtronica by Gumshen – Taking Rock-Tronica to the Next Level

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I’ve been telling all my friends for the last 10 years or so that I can’t wait until someone starts doing real rock music with electronic elements. It just seemed like the obvious next step for rock music to take; most anything that can be done with two guitars, a bass, drums, and vocals has pretty much been done.

Festival bands continue to push limits, as always, but the scene for traditional 3-5 man bands who tour and play at bars and concert venues is pretty stale, and while the rest of the music world realized a long time ago that electronic music is seeping its way into everything, the world of rock music seems to stubbornly resist the trend across the states, except maybe in Austin and Seattle. Ok, maybe a few other places; I heard a few good experimental groups while I was in Boston.

But here in LA, arguably the center of the popular music universe (emphasis on “popular”), for the most part the only rock groups that fill any kind of well-known venue are names that should have given up the ghost decades ago.

You get to hear inklings of it once in a while; Infected Mushroom, a world famous Israeli EDM duo and now LA locals, put out one album that utilized a full band called Legend of the Black Shawarma, and it was incredible, blending the fast-paced intensity of psytrance with metal to create the most enthralling live music I’ve ever born witness to, but they seem to have abandoned that track and are focusing on synthesizing dubstep and psytrance. Too bad.

I know that, in some ways, we’re all still clinging to “authentic” rock, and don’t want it to die out. Truth be told, we’re still reeling from Kurt Cobain chiding us all for being fake and sold out, but seriously, it doesn’t have to be this way. There will always be “pop” rock, so why not expand and see what happens?

The big labels and cultural xenophobes fought back in the 90’s and we lost a bit of ground and a lot of time. Personally I think it’s time for the guys with too much hairspray to sit back, have another drink and let those who are open to the future take center stage.

Progtronica-CoverIndietronica is the one rock-electronic hybrid that seems to have gained both a significant following and tangible cultural traction. The New Division has some really good stuff, LCD Soundsystem and Animal Collective have had serious followings for a decade, and the scene has been pushing its way closer and closer to mainstream levels of popularity in the last few years, in many cases without making the artistic compromises that are typical of “going pop.”

Gumshen is a band born of this wave and they seem to have the intent of creating a new one. Progtronica is a diverse, genre-bending album that covers everything from indie to metal, with dashes of jamtronica, house, and even folk thrown in. Their sound is experimental, and it seems to me that, however long the band has been together, they are trying new things and want to move in new directions. Every track on the album could easily be considered a different genre, and they do a surprisingly competent job regardless of where they wander.

“Liquid” is a very progressive track: I always wondered how far-out Explosions in the Sky could sound if they added an electronic element to their intense yet spaced-out meanderings. While this track uses synths to get a little more aggressive with the sound as opposed to adding to its atmospheric qualities, it’s definitely an interesting track, especially from 2:50 on.

The two-part guitar solo in that last half of the song is what reminds me of Explosions, and its really impressive. I wish guitar was as prevalent in the rest of their music as it is in this track. It’s tied for my favorite on the album.

“Bell Ringer” has a great beat and is really fun, with a bit of a house-y feel to it, but it doesn’t quite mesh with the feel I get from the vocals; I hear a little bit too much control. It has the feel of a passionate house club anthem and the vocals are just a little too controlled, without that breathy, passionate edge that lets so many sultry female vocalists soar over house beats.

You can hear Roger Waters in those breaks though, very cool, but the rest doesn’t quite blend. The guitar solo is great, once again, and the synth meanderings at the end are well done and unique. Really interesting track, I hear the future here, seriously, but it needs a bit of polish.

“Fine One to Talk” and “Stipulation,” by contrast, integrate all of their musical elements a bit more cohesively, sounding a bit more naturally indie with a hint of folk influence in the case of the former. They are both great tracks and don’t try to be anything they’re not. But given the diversity of this album, I feel like they are trying to do more than just the same indietronica stuff that everyone else is doing and these don’t quite push limits the way some of the others do.

I like these guys, and they clearly have talent. They need to choose a direction though; the vocals make me think of Roger Waters on The Wall and, interestingly enough, a lot of really good folk and country music, but there are a few tracks where the vocals and electronic themes just don’t quite blend.

These guys could definitely get me dancing, and they have the beats to do it, but if that’s what they’re going for, the vocals have to adapt a little. It’s totally possible, too: this is a musically irrelevant comparison, but I hear a little bit of Serj Tankian hiding somewhere in this guy and if he could really let go, they could definitely move crowds.

Gumshen does an excellent update of Pink Floyd's "Shine On You Crazy Diamond," which can be found on YouTube. This is a screen shot from that video.
Gumshen does an excellent update of Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” which can be found on YouTube.
This is a screen shot from that video.

“Bait and Switch” makes me think maybe they are thinking the same thing, and I like where it’s coming from, but they aren’t quite there yet; I would love to hear a bit more grit and real catharsis from the vocals. SHOW ME SOME REAL ANGER! I heard a hint of it at the end of “Liquid,” so I know it’s there!

“Fragile We Are Castles” is where these guys really seem to bring everything they have to the table. I hear some Rush in here, I really do; the progression of the track is very well-managed, like an 80’s ballad from Rush or Bowie, and the uncertain feeling the keys bring in around 3:00, and again at 4:00, grounds the whole track and sets the stage for the build.

When the keys solo at 4:55, it’s perfect, the only way they could have possibly maintained the tension, right before lulling you into a glorious ending like Queen in “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

The chorus is really perfect, too, and makes room for one final reiteration of the theme before the final break around 7:00. Even the flitting effects at the very end are done very tastefully.

Credit should be given to whoever laid out the album, too; that transition, from “Liquid” to “Bait and Switch,” was really impressive and does a good job of shifting the album in a more dramatic direction. The whole thing was rather well laid out, actually.

The talent is there, from instruments to songwriting to vocals, and I really love the diversity of instruments they bring in with the synth. Have I heard harpsichord in indie music before? Hell no, but I LOVE IT! If “Fragile We Are Castles” is any indication of where these guys want to go musically, I will be paying attention, and if atypical indietronica is your style, or you’ve been waiting to see what the future of music will sound like when rock and electronic music really start to fully merge, so should you.