Do vocals alone make an album metal? If Martin van Drunen fronted an album featuring a classic three-piece jazz combo playing standards from the great American songbook, would you be required to call it metal? It’s hardly an idle question, because for a large chunk of the near-seventy minute playing time of Germ’s second full-length album Grief, mastermind Tim Yatras’s ear-shatteringly high black metal shrieks are the only real thing keeping this tethered to a heavy metal framework.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, though: That on its own is neither a flaw to be stomached nor a feat to be applauded–it simply is. If your own personal ear-compass allows you to indulge in such devoutly non-metallic fare, then what you will find is an almost aggressively nostalgic album, impeccably produced and performed by one guy with a sprawling vision and many talents. As that description suggests, Grief is a bit all over the place, which means that it’s great fun to explore but largely jumbled as a cohesive listening experience.
Germ’s sole agent of infection Tim Yatras is a veteran of harder-hitting Australian mopes like Austere and Woods of Desolation, and has done time with Nazxul, Pestilential Shadows, and many more. As such, it may not be particularly surprising that Grief winds up feeling more than a little bit like depressive black metal in structure and affect, albeit depressive black metal as interpreted through the gauzy, wistful lens of someone obsessed with Gary Numan, Killing Joke, and ‘80s film soundtracks. For contemporary reference points, the sweeping new wave dramatics of Amesoeurs are convenient (and summoned intentionally, as vocalist Audrey Sylvain of Amesoeurs and Peste Noire guests on two songs here, including lead single “Butterfly”).
Despite its nostalgic haze, Grief always feels of its time. This is due in large part to Yatras’s refusal to let his nostalgia get too specific. The general feeling is of a melancholy wash of ‘80s tropes, but they’re filtered through a unifying vision that, even though it can’t unify such an overlong album of overstuffed parts, nevertheless displays a sympathetic impulse. The album is awash with post-punk drumming and glitzy, jittery synthesizer work, but also makes room for a few hair-whipped-by-a-wind-machine stadium hero guitar solos. The hugely addictive pop chorus of “The Stain of Past Regrets” is an early highlight, and “Memorial Address” is the song that gets closest to actual metal territory. But again, that’s not really the point: “An End” is an Orb-ish interlude with a breezy breakbeat backed by NASA Mission Control sampling; “Ghost Tree pt3” ends the album on a completely ambient note; and “How Can I?” is a power ballad that never quite powers, a “November Rain” that stays a mildly threatening cloud.
Despite this stylistic variety, Grief is most effective when Yatras keeps things to a quick pace. As a result, the mid-album tandem of “Beneath the Cliffs” and “Blue as the Sky, Powerful as the Waves” is a real drag. Late-album highlight “I Can See It in the Stars” masters that world-weary trudge much more effectively, and adds some understated choral keyboards to produce a dense, ultimately uplifting song. At its heart, Grief is a charmingly flawed album–though to follow a track called “It’s Over” with another fifteen minutes of diminishing-returns music is a bit of a raw joke–even if one’s personal enjoyment will depend entirely on one’s reaction to the prospect of a more self-serious Ewigkeit, or to the phrase “Hey, you dropped some Depeche Mode in my Drowning the Light.”
No matter one’s reaction, though, Grief is proof positive that Germ is a project to watch; if not to see whether Yatras reins in the sprawl and sharpens his attack, then at least to marvel at his pluck in combining these disparate elements into something that at least hints at cohesion.
Oh, and by the way: If anyone does stumble across a bootleg of Martin van Drunen fronting a Brad Mehldau Trio session gut-retching his way through “Pennies from Heaven,” I…I’ve got all of my money for you.