Puzzling Over Gholas’ Zagadka

Young New Jersey literature hounds Gholas self-released their first full-length, Zagadka (shown here in the Latin alphabet because the Cyrillic wouldn’t display properly), toward the end of 2010. The hour-long long-player, available digitally or on CD, is made up of nine incredibly varied tracks that circle around the stylistic trappings of post-metallic rhythmic churn while also keeping a fresh eye on ambience and noise influences. The triple-vocal four-piece (two guitars, bass and drums with everyone but the drummer singing), which boasts shared personnel with sludgers Deathbeds, are said to have constructed Zagadka around themes taken from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and if that’s the case, it makes sense that the album would have a tendency to meander and be obtuse at times, making it perhaps all the more appropriate that the title translates to “puzzle” or “enigma.”

As seems to be the course of several of the next-gen post-sludge outfits, Gholas haven’t in the least forgotten their apparent hardcore roots. Someone – maybe more than one person – in this band owns a Converge record. Nonetheless, guitarists Chris Morgan and Bob Morgan, bassist John Lamb and drummer Dave Cherasaro (he being the aforementioned Deathbeds connection) bring a heady complexity to the material on the James Plotkin-mastered Zagadka. So much so, in fact, that it could be said that they’re in some need of streamlining their approach. Zagadka opens instrumentally with “A Shape” before moving into the crushing “Tycho Dawn,” and “Behind Every Man Stands Thirty Ghosts”’s noisy atmospherics. What this rounds out to (just doing the math here) is that in the first 12 minutes of Zagadka, the only song, as such, is the six-minute “Tycho Dawn.” The other half of that time is dedicated toward setting the mood of the record, which, frankly, “Tycho Dawn” does anyway. If you tend to be impatient in your listening, it’s something you’re going to want to watch out for.

Fortunately, Gholas follows “Behind Every Man Stands Thirty Ghosts” with what might be the highlight of Zagadka, the 13-minute “… (The Emissary).” The Morgans transpose trademark C.O.C. riffage onto a post-metal frame while Cherasaro adds suitable plod behind and the additional weight of Lamb’s bass adds much-needed thickness. I couldn’t help but wonder in listening what additional instrumentation might do to help fill out the sound more, an undercurrent of synth or some layered-in guitar leads, but although the patterns of the vocals will be familiar to anyone who’s been down the road and back with mid-period Isis, the song satisfies nonetheless. “From Hundreds of Millions of Miles,” which follows immediately, opens with an almost identical guitar line, but quickly moves in a different direction, the two guitars playing off each other more and stopping less, lending the song a more complete feel. Tradeoff vocals help in this too, and if there’s anywhere Zagadka shows its true potential in terms of depth of arrangement, it’s here. The cut as a whole is tighter and more nuanced than a lot of what Gholas have to offer, though they bleed right from it into the barely-there ambience of “The Mobius Loop.”

That can either kill the momentum of the record or give “From Hundreds of Millions of Miles” extra time to set in, depending on how much you’re putting into your hearing. The shorter, more straightforwardly structured “9,000 Reasons” feels overall less concerned with genre, which works to its benefit – as does the presence of a genuine repeated chorus. On an album more or less devoid of hooks and going for something entirely different sonically, that Zagadka would have “9,000 Reasons” in the back half shows an awareness of audience on the part of Gholas that can only help them going forward as they continue to develop. The instincts are there, they just need to be played up. “The Eye of Japetus” is six minutes of ambient noise and sampled speech, so once again, the momentum built up across “9,000 Reasons” is undercut. I’m not saying there’s no room on Zagadka for droning, or that the Morgans, Lamb and Cherasaro shouldn’t be experimenting with their sound, just that there’s a balance to be struck between the sides of what they’re doing that won’t see them sacrifice flow or intensity for atmosphere. By the time closer “My God” kicks in – another quality 12-plus minute track in the vein of “… (The Emissary)” – it’s as though the guitar intro is snapping me back to reality. Maybe that’s the point, but there’s a difference between something being hypnotic, drawing you in, and something being distracting.

“My God” starts slow and keeps the sampled speech from “The Eye of Japetus” leading into shouted vocals and heavy crashes. About halfway through, the pace picks up and Zagadka closes strong in high-adrenaline fashion. Gholas is a curious case, because all the elements they need are right here, it’s just a matter of tightening them down to hone the best presentation. In a crowded post-metal environment, however, it’s that tightness that’s going to make the difference for them in the long run. Zagadka — which was preceded by a 2008 EP called Here I Am, Here is Infinity and has already been followed by a limited live cassette dubbed Poisoning the Airwaves — represents considerable potential for Gholas, and one hopes they can work at shows and in rehearsal to refine their approach with a mind toward the next release. There’s a lot on Zagadka to work from, so they should be in good shape.

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