When you think of music from Seattle, it’s likely what comes to mind are grunge acts like Pearl Jam, Nirvana, or Soundgarden. The roots of Gumshen eminate from a band called Menthol James, which mined that hard-rock vein when they released their sole self-titled effort in 2007. So how did they evolve from that genre to the synth-heavy sound they exhibit on their most recent release “Progtronica”?
The way they tell it, a lineup change freed keyboardist and vocalist Ron Hippe to switch from bass to keyboards, although he still chips in with guitar work. But you’d never otherwise guess that the 2007-era Menthol James has become the 2014 Gumshen, putting together five- to seven-song EPs on a roughly annual basis in the interim. “Progtronica” is their seventh release and sixth under the Gumshen moniker.
Beginning with the seven-minute opening track Bell Ringer, there’s no doubt that the band has cast its lot with an electronic, beat-heavy sound. It takes a listen or two to warm up to it, but once you begin to peel the onion they begin to make you think of good comparisons. Gumshen considers their inspirations to be Pink Floyd and early Genesis, but I would add the first Rick Wakefield era of Yes to the mix. This is particularly true on the songs Stipulation and Fragile We Are Castles, which closes the CD. On the other hand, the Pink Floyd influence shines on Fine One to Talk.
Other songs defy comparison. Liquid is an odd romp through almost too-cute lyrics that seems to be the most aimless song on the CD, although it has by far the most Soundcloud plays. The playfulness works better on the track Bait & Switch. Despite there being just six songs, the EP runs over 32 minutes.
Besides the question of whether this would be accessible to the average listener, though, my question would be whether the group is willing to step outside its comfort zone in other ways. I don’t come to this with preconceived notions, since I’m not as intimately familiar with the group as I would be several of those who play in and around this East Coast region.
Since this group has shown a willingness to essentially scrap one musical style for another, one has to wonder if they will break away from their Seattle roots and travel to other places. Of course, in this day and age of instant worldwide access to music it’s possible to make a comfortable living making music for sale and feeding the appetite for new material by simply recording it and putting it out on a site like Bandcamp, and maybe that’s the lot they’ve chosen for themselves. These guys look realtively comfortable.
But this is the kind of release which can find a devoted audience – no, it may never sell out arenas like Pink Floyd or Yes did in their heyday, but if they can determine there’s a market for the music in other places it may be worth leaving their Seattle comfort zone to entertain the new converts. Every reasonably large city (and a number of small ones, too) has their share of bands which make people scratch their heads and wonder why they never went national. So why limit yourself?
If you can get through the one subpar track in the middle, “Progtronica” is a rather enjoyable listen from a band which could make up its own mixtape of rock genres based on its overall body of material. It makes you wonder where they will go from here, in more ways than one.