The California trio Grayceon’s music is, admittedly, difficult to categorize. (While this means there is likely no one right answer, it does not mean there are no wrong answers: do not call it sludge. This is not sludge. Thank you and you’re welcome.) Progressive but not exactly prog, contemplative but not quite goth, twitchy but not quite math rock… You get the picture. Perhaps the defining feature of Grayceon, however, is the sort of cozy intimacy that results from finding succour in speaking of dark things with close friends.
Despite the fact that it has been a long seven years since Grayceon’s last album (and a still-stingy five since the excellent Pearl and the End of Days EP), the tight, economical forty minutes of IV present Grayceon at their most clarified. The album still kindles the progressive and curiously meandering spirit of Gracyeon’s previous albums (in particular This Grand Show), but it maintains a sharper focus by not strolling too freely across knotty epics, and never loses sight of the power of those boundary-pushing elements to still sock the listener with inescapably emotional gut-punches.
As a trio whose membership has not wavered since its inception, listening to Grayceon’s music feels like sitting in on a sympathetic conversation between three equal voices. On album opener “Sliver Moon,” Jackie Perez Gratz’s cello and Max Doyle’s guitar trade off fluidly as lead instruments, while the most powerful passage is the mid-song break where Zack Farwell’s drums play across Gratz’s furious single-note bowing. In general, some of the album’s most propulsive moments occur when the guitar and drums lock into a pummeling rhythmic figure while the cello arcs across with a reedy, insistent melody. Because it’s not always the focus, it’s easy to overlook Doyle’s guitar, but its tightly controlled punch is a huge key to the album’s success, and his tone is a pure, tactile pleasure.
Like SubRosa, Gratz’s lyrics in Grayceon tend toward simple, almost epigraphic phrases that gain force through repetition. Like Amber Asylum (of whom Gratz was a member), Grayceon shares a dark-spun gossamer core. Like Dirty Three, Grayceon uses a less conventional stringed instrument as lead, but is just as likely to subvert the listener’s expectation that violins or cellos are meant to make only lovely, sedate sounds. And while you may hear a fair amount of Giant Squid due to this tight-knit family (in more ways than one) of bands, Grayceon is a unique entity in its own right, and IV is the most potent distillation of its stirring essence.
On “By-The-Wind Sailors,” the plangent tone of Doyle’s guitar conveys an aquatic atmosphere, but the song is one of the best displays of Grayceon’s dynamic depth: despite opening as a plaintive cello and voice duet, it twists into one of the album’s most aggressive pieces. When it finally breaks into a clattering blast pace, Farwell’s drumming takes no shortcuts – listen to how he absolutely punishes the center of his ride cymbal. Elsewhere, the mixing of Gratz’s vocals on “Scorpion” is subtle but potent, as her piercing wails attack from way back in one channel and then the other.
Despite these early-album highlights, IV’s most powerful section might be the mid-album hinge of “Let It Go” and “Slow Burn.” On “Let It Go,” several tracks of Gratz’s cello intertwine in a mournful dance, and while the song on the whole is slow and sad and lovely, it gains a piquant tension by the way the insistent plea of the chorus (“When you find the one you love, / Don’t let go”) is interrogated and undercut by the contradictions of the song’s title and the ferocious screams of “Let! Go!” in the background. Meanwhile, “Slow Burn” belies its title by ripping into high speed immediately with a legit thrash riff and d-beat drumming. That two-minute sprint collapses into a sharply sassy doom motif – “What if you knew what you know now?” – backed by some utterly colossal guitar bends.
Perhaps the reason that it feels a little rude to tag Grayceon with the ‘progressive’ label is that, while their songs build in unusual ways, the impression as a listener is that each piece unfolds exactly as it should, almost exactly as you knew it would. There’s nothing wry or arch or secretly scaffolded. The music is, for lack of more precision, inviting: an open hand; a new idea offered without pedantry; a sound thrilled by the possibility of echo or reply or silence alike.
The riff that kicks in after the fake ending of the stunning album closer “Dreamers” is a wonderful illustration of this ethos: swinging yet off-kilter, swaggering yet somehow vulnerable. It feels like a live-set-ending riff, a world-ending riff – but it only works because these three humans are passing the weight around, sifting it from hand to hand and voice to voice, making minute-by-minute sense of the world as they create it. In a way, family is what you make from what you find. I hope you find what you love, and that you don’t let it go.
If you can’t get enough Grayceon goodness, check out our recent interview with Jackie Perez-Gratz located >>here.<<