Review: Gulgoleth by Sam Eastmond — cathartic, confrontational stream-of-consciousness

From the very beginning, The Music and Myth  was meant as a place to “celebrate great music and the talented people who create it.” I am of the opinion that the world is very generous with negativity and very economic with praise and positivity, so I consider it wasteful to spend time writing about something I don’t like (or simply don’t connect with personally) at the expense of writing about the music I love. As you might know, my reviews are not so much a critic’s judgement on a particular piece of music as they are an exploration of a work I love and a description of my personal relationship with that particular work. 

Consequently, before even deciding whether to write about an album, I listen to it at least a couple of times to make sure it clicks with me. When Sam Eastmond sent me a link to Gulgoleth with the message, “FYI I’ve got this coming out on Chant next month, want to write about it?” I answered yes before even hearing a single note. That’s because Sam is one of a select few musicians whose judgment I inherently trust.

A long-time Music and Myth favorite, the London-based composer, arranger and trumpet player is best known as the leader of the always-exciting Spike Orchestra. Molded by the work of his idol, John Zorn, whom he frequently refers to as “the greatest composer of all time”, Sam is a veritable reservoir of energy and creativity. His most recent project, TORU is an ongoing monthly series of albums featuring spontaneous compositions created in collaboration with trumpeters Celeste Cantor-Stephens and Andy Watts, alongside a different guest for each album.

A tireless and sometimes restless musician whose “instinctive reactions to any problem in composition are to write more and add more people“, Sam finds himself tackling a problem of a personal nature with a completely different approach. During a dark and distressing period in his life, Sam’s creative reaction was to strip down his music of everything but the bare essentials: in this case, a killer rhythm section featuring Otto Willberg on bass and Will Glaser on drums, alongside pianist Elliot Galvin and guitarist Moss Freed.

Born from the composer’s fascination with the chemistry developed by the four musicians during their work on the Spike Orchestra Masada recordings and fueled by “post-session viewings of the work of Jack Smith and the Marx Brothers”, Gulgoleth is a raw, cathartic, confrontational album in the vein of Naked City and Marc Ribot’s Shrek.

Revealingly, in his most intimate work to date, Sam refrains from playing. Instead, he reverts solely to the role of composer, with the stated intention of bringing the music “directly from my head to these four musicians”. This fascination with what he calls “sonic telepathy”, evident in the album’s name and cover image (“gulgoleth” is the Hebrew word for “skull”), results in a kind of spasmodic stream-of-consciousness that borrows from Naked City’s jump-cut technique but feels less like an experimental workshop and more like an electroencephalography.

Where Zorn’s seminal album was anchored in artistic experimentation, Sam’s extroverted outing is driven by nothing but a visceral need for personal expression (read: venting) replete with homages, in-jokes and personal anecdotes. Throughout the record’s eight lengthy tracks, the band runs the gamut from “free-jazz, surf, rock, cartoon, Radical Jewish Culture and Downtown film noir dreamscape” translating the composer’s vision into a sound that feels, at once, disturbingly aggressive and disarmingly vulnerable.

From the opening moments of “Zombi Love”, the album’s impulsive nature is heralded by a high-octane sonic explosion, giving the impression that all of the instruments are frantically competing for space. Ultimately, the entropy settles into a forced, fragile order at whose center lies a nervous guitar riff that seems to almost spite the rest of the instruments.

Perhaps the whole opening sequence is meant as a symbol of Gulgoleth’s tumultuous origin, a creative gesture that would not be out-of-character for a composer whose work is often self-referential. And it’s in conveying this self-referential character that the musicians truly get to demonstrates their outstanding chemistry. 

From Will Glaser summoning Joey Baron on “Standing On The Shoulders of Giant Slayers” and “In The Grip of The Lobster” to “Atlantis Falls” with its ominous, Grand Guignol-vibe or the closing track’s nod to Masada and RJC, the band masterfully (and, dare I say, lovingly) captures and honors that reverential, community-conscious quality that lies at the heart of Sam Eastmond’s artistry. This canonical coherence is as essential a factor in Gulgoleth as the band’s spectacular interplay. 

Concerning the aforementioned interplay, it’s safe to say the composer’s sought-after symbiosis has been consummately achieved. To be honest, given the nature of the album (and perhaps my own fascination with Moss Freed’s playing), I was somewhat expecting Gulgoleth to be the Moss Freed show. Instead, each instrument feels integral to the message of the music, each musician given equal time and space to express that message at a level that feels almost mathematically determined. The relationship between the musicians feels like one of co-dependency rather than mere cooperation. Common sense dictates that should always be a given in music. Reality teaches us differently. 

That being said, on a wholly subjective level, my personal revelation was Elliot Galvin. His consistently superb playing and inherently graceful instrument (for as much as he seems bent on trying to destroy it at times) ensures that the disruptive structure of the music – such as the repeated, rapid-succession switch from cartoon to hard rock on “Buzzard Soup” – doesn’t become exhausting. 

Interestingly, there is a sense of anxiety and foreboding to the album’s quieter moments, making the all-encompassing noise of some of its wilder ones come off as relaxing. This creates the impression that the composer’s mind is tense in tranquility and only feels truly at ease in moments of extreme cognitive stimulation (such as explosions of noise), which is something this music enthusiast finds relatable.

Although its homage-heavy vibe perhaps prevents it from feeling as visionary as some of the works that inspired it, Gulgoleth achieves something arguably more difficult: it feels necessary. There is an urgency to the music that reveals an almost unsettling level of honesty – a desperately-needed trait in the modern musical environment. All in all, a delightfully challenging and extremely rewarding record.

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