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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Pontus H.W. Gunve

The Observer

Review by Jason Hillenburg

There are few musicians in the mold of Pontus Gunve. Rarely content to rely on the traditional, but instead plundering it for his own uses, Gunve brings a European sensibility to dense, intensely musical instrumentals. His album, The Observer, ranks as one of the most challenging and, ultimately, rewarding releases of the year.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2013  Volume 3 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Kraken

“Kraken” opens with a swirl of ambient noise leading into a duet between light percussion and stark, hypnotic guitar work. The piece has superb melodic movement; his use of dynamics is unique. While he embraces many of the instruments forming the bedrock of popular rock music, he employs them in a subtle fashion. There are no traditional crescendos. Instead, Gunve orchestrates the composition's tension to transition between the different sections until it resolves itself in an ending like a voice falling down a well.

Cavalry of Camels
“Cavalry of Camels” has a luxurious, world music feel. There is a distinctively European quality to his music. Gunve's compositional principles differ wildly - rather than looking to deliver verses, choruses, and bridges to the listener, Gunve launches explorations of sound seeking to invoke mood and engage the mind.
Winter Ballad
“Winter Ballad,” by its title alone, invokes a slow moving, brooding piece. Instead, the song's cinematic qualities temper its moodiness. The synthesis of strings, guitar, and hard-hitting percussion conjure images of horsemen riding across a snow-covered landscape. The deceptively simple melodies use repetition to nestle the song in the listener's memory, but extended phrasing works with flourishes of guitar and drums to lend the song additional drama.
Under a Lime Tree
Once again, strong melodies form the basis of the next song. “Under a Lime Tree” opens with a clean guitar playing a quiet, plaintive melody, accompanied by faint violin and light percussion. When the song swings into full gear, the epic feel is unmistakable again. Gunve employs guitar and violin competing against one another for sonic supremacy and often playing in counterpoint to each other. On a song like this, the resulting tension works spectacularly.
Number 5
The understated, syncopated menace of “Number 5” is riveting to hear. Once again, anchored by tight drumming, a fierce duel between the guitar and violin ensues. The drumming is the true star here as it creates a deep, mile-wide groove for the guitar and violin. This powerful, strutting work is one of the album's highlights.
Yamaheart

“Yamaheart” is a brief piece and rather sparse in comparison to the preceding songs. Brittle blasts of distorted guitar growl over the slinky groove and, despite its brief duration, does a superb job of invoking a mood of barely suppressed menace just beneath the surface.

Tales of a Mariner’s Wife
“Tales of a Mariner’s Wife” starts as a churning rock number with aggressive drumming. Gunve surprises the listener by stepping back from the dramatic opening. The music gives way to another lively ensemble dialogue between the violin, guitar, and percussion. While this revisits sonic and thematic elements heard earlier, this song is the fullest expression of Gunve's songwriting talents. It moves effortlessly through a series of musical moods and compels the listener's attention. The undisputed highlight of this album is the spectacular interplay generated by the violin and guitar working together and this song has the fullest expression of that match.
Waveshapes
Acoustic guitar, bass, drums, and violin open “Waveshapes.” The percussion comes in tight rolls across the kit and displays impressive precision. Gunve's mood throughout the album is consistent. Here, like elsewhere on the album, the music is restless, often spinning in circles, but full of boundless energy. There are moments scattered throughout the album when the rock solid drumming is clearly the glue holding these performances together. This is one of those songs. The consistency of the percussion helps imprint the song into the listener's memory.
Begin Again
“Begin Again” is another exploration of dynamics, utilizing the guitar and violin as his primary lead instruments. Despite revisiting familiar tropes from earlier songs, this performance sounds fresh and carries with it its own distinctive character.
Galen
“Galen” is a lengthy piece that dispenses with the largely modern influences heard throughout the album in favor of a slightly more classical, progressive feel. The guitar work still bears all the hallmarks of rock music, but the surrounding instrumentation is less free flowing. The early portion of the song especially sticks close to its arrangement and shuns the challenging rhythmic shifts common to Gunve's music until later portions of the song. The composition ends quietly with its fading percussion giving way to the sound of chirping birds.
Damini
Chirping birds open the album's final track. When they fade away, the guitar emerges playing a clean, simple melody. The simple melody is never dull, however, and develops in an organic, almost improvisational fashion. The slightly muffled notes, brief flurries, and vibrato enhance the piece immensely.
 
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