The Universe Also Collapses
The vanguards of 20th and 21st Century psychedelic music lead the way with their new studio album
Gong is more than a band. It’s an idea. A way of life. A continuum that exists in all times, in all places, everywhere.
Gong’s new album, The Universe Also Collapses, due for release on 10th May, their first for Kscope, is the latest shining point on that continuum, a masterpiece of visionary 21st century psychedelia, a celebration of the magick of science, a journey both internal and external, bridging the worlds of lysergic exploration and quantum physics, equal parts Terence McKenna and Stephen Hawking.
“We wanted to make what we thought of as the ultimate psychedelic rock album,” says Gong’s singer and guitarist Kavus Torabi of The Universe Also Collapses. “The word ‘psychedelic’ gets bandied around a lot, and a great deal of the stuff that gets called psychedelic nowadays doesn’t match up to the description. I want to hear music that makes me feel like I’m on drugs.”
The Universe Also Collapses is all of that, but it’s much more too. This is the second album since the death in 2015 of Daevid Allen, the maverick genius who founded Gong more than 50 years ago in a flash of LSD-fuelled inspiration. If 2016’s Rejoice! I’m Dead! was a tribute of sorts to the band’s departed talisman, then The Universe Also Collapses marks the dawning of a new chapter.
“Gong has always been a force for propulsive, forward-thinking open-mindedness,” says Kavus. “The last album was partly us paying tribute to Daevid, but I think maybe Daevid would have seen that as a bit too sentimental. He was more ‘Fuck that you guys, do your own thing.’”
Torabi and bandmates Fabio Golfetti (guitar), Dave Sturt (bass), Ian East (saxophone) and Cheb Nettles (drums) have taken that unspoken instruction to heart on The Universe Also Collapses. Where Gong’s wilfully erratic path has stopped off at pulsing space rock, pot-headed whimsy, needle-sharp fusion and all points in between, the new album is an undiluted psychedelic experience.
“We wanted to put Gong back at the heart of being an absolutely psychedelic band,” says Kavus. “From the start we wanted to make delirious, psychedelic, head music that you could actually dance to! It’s not a prog record, it's not a jazz fusion record – it’s a psychedelic record.”
It’s no coincidence that The Universe Also Collapses feels like a trip, in the true sense. Its four tracks ebb and flow, bend and warp, fold in on themselves then open out in a dazzling display of sound and imagery. This is the lysergic experience recreated in musical form.
“We consciously wanted it to sound like a big musical revelation. Let it have everything: the build-up, the bliss, the dark voyage of the soul, the epiphany,” explains Kavus.
This approach is embodied in opening track, “Forever Reoccurring”, an epic 20-minute song-come-sonic exploration that consciously upends conventional notions of time and space.
“That song started off with this one riff,” explains Kavus. “One thing Gong is good at is stretching a riff out, so we did that for a while, and we thought, ‘What if this just grew and grew? This might make a brilliant opening song.’”
That same instinctive approach shaped the other tracks that make up the album. Gong had amassed more than 30 potential songs, but they decided to focus on the very first three they’d written: the jagged yet spiralling “If Never I’m And Ever You”, the alternately turbulent and blissful 13-minute mindscape “My Sawtooth Wake”, and the revelatory finale “The Elemental”.
“As the Buddha says, ‘Where there is choice there is misery, where there is clarity there is no choice.’ We said, ‘Let’s just take the first three and develop them,’” explains Kavus.
The Universes Also Collapses isn’t a concept album (“That suggests there’s a narrative,” says Kavus) but there is an over-arching theme that binds it together, best expressed in one of the opening track’s key lines: “All the moments that make up a life/Forever at once reoccurring. The idea stems from a realisation I had that everything is happening at once,” says Kavus. “Our experiences of time as a linear thing is merely because we’re trapped in these funny bodies that experience it that way. But everything is happening at once – there’s no such thing as time. It’s an illusion. The idea is that the Big Bang and the inevitable collapse of the universe is all happening in the same instant – the here and now,” he continues. “All we have is this single moment, and everything that has happened or ever will happen is happening within it.”
This theme flickers through The Universe Also Collapses’ three other tracks like tracer lines. Lyrical and musical moments reappear, reflecting an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of experience. “Like an acid trip, themes keep coming back,” says Kavus.
Throughout their career, Gong have simultaneously been a reflection of, and a reaction to, the real world. The Universe Also Collapses doesn’t so much provide solace from these crazy times as put them in a proper perspective – one that makes them look very, very insignificant.
“Post-internet, post-social media, I don’t know what the real world is,” says Kavus. “I'm with the author Robert Anton Wilson - the real world is only your own reality tunnel. Everybody might be projecting their reality tunnel, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it's mine or yours or whatever. My reality tunnel is Gong, and it is psychedelic music. That's the world I want to live in, and it’s a great world to live in. But Daevid saw Gong as a radical force for good. I'm always aware of that.”
Even four years after his death, Daevid Allen’s presence is inextricably bound up with Gong. But where Rejoice! I’m Dead! was undeniably a tribute to their departed colleague, The Universe Also Collapses marks a new chapter.
“Gong was Daevid’s vision, but he didn't want his vision to be buried with him in the grave,” says Kavus. “He always wanted it to carry on, with him or without him. Daevid always said that Gong is a ship that you get on and off and it’s up to whoever is on the ship to take it wherever they want to.
“With this one it was very much, Let's make the record that we want to make. No guests or anything. We're legitimately Gong, let's make our album’,” he continues “If there's stuff on there that doesn't sound like what people think Gong is, well, we're not going to pretend we're in 1974, this is 2019. This is very much us going, ‘If we're following Daevid's idea, then we are Gong and we have made this on our own terms.’ We are Gong and this is what Gong is.”
Gong have never been a spiritual band in the glib sense of the word. But wherever Daevid Allen is now, he would be proud of the latest evolutionary step being taken by the entity that he helped will into being.
“He just wanted Gong to carry on. That his idea wouldn't die with his body.” says Kavus emphatically. “And he would love that it's gone back to being really psychedelic again.”
But then Daevid Allen isn’t really gone. Like Gong - like everyone who has ever listened or ever will listen to them – he exists at all points, everywhere, at the same time. As the mantra-like closing words of The Universe Also Collapses’ final track, “The Elemental”, put it: “Remember, there is only now…”