Gaz Coombes - Matador

by Warwick Stubbs Rating:9 Release Date:2015-01-26

In retrospect it almost seems like Here Come the Bombs was an attempt for the ex-Supergrass singer/songwriter/guitarist to purge the last remnants of rock from his veins. There is, of course, rock all over that album, but it is heavily supplemented by programmed drum-tracks fused with a far more controlled sound, less reliant on fuzz-guitar. While tracks like ‘Bombs’ and ‘White Noise’ seemed familiar with their rock vibe and melodic chorus hooks, electronic focused tracks like ‘Fanfare’ seemed like the last thing anyone might have expected.

What stood out about that album, though, was its separation from the rock band format while the artist still relied on the genre itself to bring body to the music. This, one could argue, is what is wholly absent from Matador. Have we entered a period in music where genre-crossing is the norm, and in some ways, more appealing than anything pure of origin? There’s a great recorded conversation between Gaz Coombes and Gerard Way at Drowned in Sound (YouTube) where Coombes talks about his admiration for Beck as an artist who from album to album can seem completely different. On Matador, one wonders if this is exactly what Coombes is going for: a chance to sound different. But different from what? Different from Supergrass? Yes. Different from electronica? Yes. Different from everybody? Not really. Tall order. But he does sound different from the Gaz Coombes that you might have been expecting.

Straight away, ‘Buffalo’ introduces the electronic sounds but crosses them with an acoustic piano before vocals sing “Buffalo, buffalo open arm take me home/ I’m an acrobat on the wire, I’m a call in the night,” with crashing drums in the chorus contrasting with the more subdued verses. ‘20/20’ invokes 60s melody and accompaniment in the verses, reminiscent of both The Beatles and Ray Davies, transforming itself into acoustic passages before Coombes pulls the instrumentation back to reiterate the chorus: “It’s alright, the ends in sight, worry fades the soul away/ I'll take the hurricane for you/ Who am I, who am I? I couldn’t operate/ God knows I wanted to.” It’s an odd sentiment to hold up for scrutiny so early on the album, and I can’t help wondering if it calls to light his last moments as part of a world-famous rock band. It’s certainly not the first time musicians have used their solo careers to release those frustrated feelings of being in a band. But then, what we the public tend to forget is that these artists also have personal lives they can draw musical inspiration from. While in a case such as ‘Solsbury Hill’, Peter Gabriel was making a very specific reference to his previous band Genesis when he sang “I walked right out of the machinary”, and the song reflected the spiritual nature of letting go, here Coombes is vague enough that the metaphor alone is invoked and the listener is able to attach their own experiences to the song. A lyric like, “Lay your heart down on mine/ No need to cry we’re home and dry” only leaves us guessing at what could be something far more personal.

And that’s what this album is: Something far more personal. Whether that’s in the sparse electronic samples, the removal of straight-out rock beats while maintaining a full backing band, or emotive but non-specific lyrics, or even odd dynamic structures, the music is clearly something that Gaz Coombes wants to present fully as himself rather than as just part of himself. ‘The English Ruse’, for example, brings to mind the straight-up rock of ‘All Babes Are Wolves’ by Spinerette but completely void of the traditional rock sound of loud guitars, as though he wants to invoke the spirit of rock through sparse acoustic means. He does so, all the while providing the sort of beat and vocal desperation that everyone loves to get out of their seat to jump up and down to. Probably the most ‘traditional’ is the fourth track, ‘The Girl Who Fell to Earth’, which underneath all its upbeat snare-drum brush and overlays is a basic acoustic ballad reminiscent of David Bowie. ‘Detroit’ follows a similar path.

There’s a clear focus on a clean, Moog-ish synthesizer sound so just when you think you are hearing the beginnings of something electric guitar-based (‘Needles Eye’), that synthesizer takes over and relegates the electric guitar to accompanying rhythmic stabs. What’s at odds, more often than not, with this approach is that much of this interesting instrumentation is juxtaposed with a lighter, flowing, hollower sound. I'd argue that this only takes away interest through contrast rather than adding it through consistency.

‘Seven Walls’ and ‘Oscillate’ show the breadth of experimentation and how far down the crooner path Coombes is willing to go. After this album, Coombes could pretty much do anything he wants - and get away with it.

If you judge this on a first listening, you might be fooled into thinking Gaz Coombes is attempting something post-modern by presenting an almost crooner vocal approach with non-appealing phrasing, but repeated listening reveals subtleties that move the listener to choruses that reveal hooks beyond their immediate impressions.

It wouldn’t be hard to fall in love with this album, but then it might not even be an album that sticks around for too long either. What is absolutely consistent about this album is the crossover between samples, acoustic instrumentation, and the clear intent to experiment with sounds rather than just presenting songs in a standard rock or electronic setting. This is about as contemporary as contemporary gets.

Coombes never seemed like the suffering artist who bears all their wounds to the audience, but instead a happy-go-lucky lead singer of an awesome rock band who smiled with cheese to show off how white his teeth were. Yet every artist can surprise us and offer something to give us hope when our spirits are down, and as Gaz Coombes ends this second solo effort he sings to us: “When it falls apart in the avalanche/ the hero’s fate is played out before the crowd/ They want blood, they want your heart and soul/ But the hardest fight is the one you fight alone.” It’s a simple message and after only a minute and a half, the song's sparse arrangement of drums and droning synth ends abruptly with the most personal of thoughts: “I’ll take all the pain and the scars of war/ because I’ll face the beast and fight like a matador.”

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