After hearing the first two songs from the sophomore effort from Grayceon, I promptly picked my jaw up off the floor and immediately kicked myself for not heeding the universal–and I do mean universal–praise and glowing recommendations for this band’s first effort. 2007’s self titled effort was lavished with praise from all sources great and small. Despite that, AND the fact that I’m a sucker for slippery, hard to pin down progressive (but not prog) metal, AND the fact that that album, as this one, is on a venerable stronghold for eclectic quality music, Vendlus Records, this band’s first album never got crossed off my (long) “to buy” list. Time to fix that, double quick.
Comprised of guitar, drums, and an electric cello, this three piece from San Francisco plays a unique cadre of styles–incorporating sounds and structures from genres ranging from metal to rock to classical. Much of the material has a loosely classical feel, in part because of the band’s unique composition, but also because these mostly super-long tracks don’t use traditional song structures and tend to ebb and flow and unfold in movements. If you’ve paid any attention to my writing (and it’s been infrequent, here lately) during my years here, you know I’m a sucker for challenging, atypical music. The other thing that blows my hair back is balance. And This Grand Show delivers on both counts. Grayceon has an almost unnerving ability to weave together and between different styles and moods, remaining lithe enough to not be mired into the pitfalls of any, while deftly avoiding any potential accusation that they’re simply trying on different styles for the sake of fashion. When those classical moments crop up, the material doesn’t feel stuffy or pretentious. At their heaviest, and there are some crunching moments here, they don’t seem overtly raw or punishing. The mournful tones of the cello avoid becoming purely maudlin. As it ends up, Grayceon are plying and not plying these styles in equal measures, if that makes any sense.
The album’s more raucous moments come courtesy of its opening and closing tracks, which also happen to be the only two of the five under ten minutes long. The instrumental “It Begins, and So It Ends” alternates between understated guitar work, gentle cello melodies, and punctuating drumming that functions as riff work; and chunky, headbangable chugging. True to form, it becomes neither too heady nor aggressive. As the song gives way to “Still the Desert,” we’re greeted by dual male/female vocals that will make Hammers of Misfortune fans drool. Grayceon gets the very most out of their modest lineup, as the drums and cello are every bit the creative equal of the guitar, and all three instruments pull equal weight when it comes to constructing layered, intricate music that’s worthy of the spotlight while also providing support and room for the other instruments. What’s more, each member coaxes nontraditional voices and phrasings from their instrument. From what I can tell from some streaming samples of the first album, this time around the drums are much less consistently frenetically active than last time around. In any case, it’s intriguing how the drum pace and patterns are so prominently and creatively used to drive shifts to heavier and more mellow sections. The lean and powerful, controlled tumbling riffs and percussion sometimes evoke fleeting thoughts of Mastodon, and although the band ebbs and flows, contrary to master architects Neurosis, these aren’t the kind of earth shifting, blow your hair back crescendos, but more subtle movements that are natural, dexterous, and almost unassuming in comparison.
At a staggering twenty-two minutes, “Sleep” is the longest composition here, and is served up in three parts. The opening act is a predominantly mellow and somber one, while midway through the song shuts down entirely and restarts with an extended sparse and spacey movement, before yielding to the inevitable building climax during the track’s culmination. Of course, that’s greatly simplifying what’s going on here, but that’s the nature of describing a band like Grayceon. This is the kind of music that words just don’t capture–you need to hear it for yourself. And if there’s any justice (and who am I kidding, there’s not), most of you will. Grayceon is a singular voice in creative, thoughtful, nontraditional progressive music. Excellent stuff.