After Gengahr released their second album ‘Where Wildness Grows’ in 2018, frontman Felix Bushe was hit with a barrage of bad news. His mother passed away. His girlfriend (now wife) had to return to Australia where she still lives. Personal turmoil can be a creative catalyst, and ‘Sanctuary’ is certainly Gengahr’s most probing release to date. “I got the chance to go down the rabbit hole,” Bushe told NME of making album number three.
Fans of the east London quartet will find much to connect with in ‘Sanctuary’. Warped, wobbly notes and tones, fidgety guitars and Bushe’s trademark jaunty falsetto are all locked on – particularly in the album’s second half. ‘You’re No Fun’, for instance, is the Gengahr of yore: skewered psych-pop reminiscent of early Unknown Mortal Orchestra. It morphs later into a rousing indie-pop banger akin to Gengahr’s 2018 single ‘Carrion’ and is likely to please longtime listeners.
There’s quite a sea change elsewhere. The album’s first few tracks are clearly where Bushe and co. have borne their creative fruit, albeit with varying degrees of success. ‘Atlas Please’, the album’s lead single shared back in 2018, introduces more of a groove to the band’s sound by pulling bass to the front and draping it over baggier beats.
‘Heavenly Maybe’ continues Gengahr’s line of experimentation (it was notably co-written and produced by Bombay Bicycle Club’s Jack Steadman). It plays out like a glam rock-disco hybrid, exploring the excesses of hedonism with funky guitars, chattering hi-hats and saccharine vocals. Despite its polished production, it strangely never quite lands.
Neighbouring track ‘Never a Low’, however, gives ‘Sanctuary’ the gritty kick it needs. A song that grapples with a cycle of bad habits (“So out of control / This will be the last time”), it groups dirge-like synths, gloopy bass glides and a muscular beat together against the twisted, catchy melodies Bushe so excels in. The song could be something of a Glass Animals offcut, embellished by Gengahr’s own idiosyncrasies.
‘Fantasy’ is a hazy jumble of pitch-bent guitars, off-kilter keys and vague, spoken word platitudes that serves as the album’s central interlude. It’s a clever device with which to break up the record’s slinkier first half, excavating a trove of songs with disjointed synths and guitars at the heart. Too many times these latter songs – ‘Soaking in Formula’, ‘Moonlight’ and the arcade game ditty ‘Anime’ – fail to leave a lasting impression.
Meanwhile, ‘Icarus’ hears the band draw on the sound from their brilliant 2015 debut ‘A Dream Outside’ with darting guitars, an insistent beat and an earworm chorus in which Bushe considers the detrimental impact of technology.
‘Sanctuary’ works best when Gengahr push their usual parameters. But hesitation remains in this regard, evidenced by some rather uninspired moments. Nonetheless it’s a worthy effort and one that surely sets them up for greater things to come.
Release date: January 31
Record label: Liberator Music