HISTORIO: Upgrade & Afterlife / Gastr Del Sol (1996)

Historio is a series that spotlights personal reflections on truly pivotal recordings.
Music that somehow comes but never goes…

Music is for many, a map of our lives. A tracing of the times, the places, the people and the experiences. Around 8 years ago, my partner Emma casually asked me what my favourite piece of music was. I stopped what I was doing, sat back and looked into the distance. ‘That’s a very tricky question’. After a few minutes of red penning huge swathes of my heroes, I settled on a piece of music I’d first heard not long after it was released in 1996, during my time as an art student in Aberdeen. I remember the experience like it was yesterday. My brain spasmed as the piece opened out in the final moments of its 8.26 minute duration. “Our Exquisite Replica Of “Eternity” by Gastr Del Sol” I replied.

A few months later, Emma proposed to me and presented me with a ring she had designed. The white gold band had 5 emeralds from my dearly departed Gran’s ring, embedded within a simple musical stave. The emeralds plotted the 5 first recognisable notes of Our Exquisite Replica Of “Eternity” that one of her suitably skilled work colleagues had transcribed. Apparently, he’d sat through almost 90% of the recording, scratching his head, to actually get to the bit with notes. I was touched, I was amazed and of course, I said yes.

Of course, the story gets even more complex. Our Exquisite Replica Of “Eternity” could be a powerfully apt motto for our long and happy relationship, but what gives this story its punch line is that the piece was actually named after a sign on a counterfeit perfume vending machine that Jim O’Rourke and David Grubbs (who were Gastr Del Sol) spotted in Japan – the “Eternity” part clearly referencing Calvin Klein.

But if you’ll forgive my personal interlude, the real deal here was thinking back to the idea of a favourite piece of music. Upgrade & Afterlife, the album from which Our Exquisite Replica Of “Eternity” is taken, came 22 years after what I’m sure was some sort of zenith in my listening. After years of a complete emersion in Cage, Stockhausen, Varèse and chums, I’d finally found contemporary music that delivered the sort of skewed weirdness I was looking for. That’s not to say no one else was delivering; just for many at the time, it was so much more difficult to actually find this stuff in the pre-internet age – and on a student budget.

As is often the case with a phenomenal album, the adventure starts at the cover and Upgrade & Afterlife was framed with a stunning documentary photograph of water exploding out of a pair of wellington boots! The image was in fact Wasser Steifeil, a piece by Roman Signer, a sculptor I’d just recently tuned into as well. The gravitational pull was strong with this one.

Clearly the first track was a mind blower that still today makes the hair on the back of neck stand up for a host of reasons. A mangled angle-ground drone that hangs in the air like heatstroke and the weird climax that raises suddenly through the whole thing was every bit as powerful as the ambient master class of the opening scene of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West. (It’s also clearly whats on the mind of the Youtuber that posted the video). It was only years later that I found out the brassy orchestral samples were in fact taken from Hans J. Salter’s Incredible Shrinking Man soundtrack, and the effect is just as revelatory. The dusting of electronic sparkles as the piece crescendos is one of the most powerful moments I have ever experienced in music. It’s jam-packed in equal measures with a filmic panorama, human emotion and complete alien strangeness.

Next up, Rebecca Sylvester sounds like it may just be a simple guitar ballad but the normal dynamic and momentum unhinges the whole thing into an odd, hanging ambience. The salience of silences. The guitar feels like the only part that offers the listen any sense of actual normality. The lyrics feel more like shards of text blowing in the wind… The same ambience reflects through the plaintive piano as Mats Gustafsson’s flageolet shape shifts into the best ever whistling kettle solo ever. As the piece slowly warps under sheets of woozy electronics, it’s clear this album isn’t ever going to settle into anything remotely normal.

Hello Spiral births out of a knot of sampled mayhem, a fizzing ball of shit that pulls itself apart over a chaotic minute. The next 10 minutes are spend travelling through a grooving pattern slowly growing and accelerating, firstly, like clockwork, then into a gallop, then via a bristling electrified passage. The whole spline eventually covered in a dizzying swarm of electronics before entering back briefly into space. Then silence.

The next track, The Relay, plots the decay of a piano into silence before rising into a weird overlapping prismic vocal. Crappie Tactics revisits the looping afterglow of Our Exquisite Replica Of “Eternity” as a conceptual end point to the album.

And then comes the final track. In a way, the closing track sits removed from the rest of the disc but for a host of reasons I for one am so glad it exists. It forms a sonic bridge and stands as a latter day monument to the sublime musical pairing of John Fahey and Tony Conrad. O’Rourke had worked and was obsessed with Fahey around this time (which in turn further fuelled my own) and covers John Fahey’s Dry Bones In The Valley (I Saw The Light Come Shining ‘Round And ‘Round). The track originally appeared on Fahey’s 1975 album Old Fashioned Love. Conrad appears as a guest player, his sawing viola enters the piece halfway through and for me, this completes this highest possible quality conceptual Lego set. Two kings of experimental music brought together in one space – a beautifully thoughtful way to round off an incredible album.

Gastr Del Sol went on to release one more album Camofleur a year or two later before calling it a day. That album was widely regarded as a far brighter sounding album and in some respects hangs together as a much more even listen. But for me, the weird ambience of its brooding predecessor keeps Upgrade & Afterlife immune to some misty-eyed nostalgia. Gastr Del Sol’s small and jumpy discography is all heartily recommended. However, Upgrade & Afterlife sits proudly at the top of the pile – it’s as odd as hell for sure but has an immediacy, spikiness and depth that is as effective today as the first time I hit play.

Upgrade & Afterlife is available here


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