Because they belong to San Francisco’s diverse and recombinant music scene, Grayceon is hardly alone in making genre-agnostic but undeniably progressive heavy metal. They are, however, almost singularly adept at summoning big, unguarded emotions with an unassuming nonchalance. On their fifth album, Mothers Weavers Vultures, the trio addresses love, loss, and anger in plain-spoken language (both lyrical and musical) that elevates each song to the realm of elemental truth.
Album opener “Diablo Wind” begins with Jackie Perez Gratz’s unadorned cello bowing a steady drone on a low string while dancing an almost Irish reel mournfully on a higher string. The song alternates between the stuttering heft of unison riffs and long, winding, almost tumbled-out melodic strings in counterpoint. The massive doom riff that kicks in around 5:20 is the sort of confident move that implicates the listener’s entire body in its performance, as if the combined mass of any human within earshot was required to move the tectonic plates needed to shape it.
Of special note here is Jack Shirley’s absolutely perfect production, which is reminiscent of the type of warmth and clarity that he and Justin Weis (with whom Shirley and Grayceon have worked in the past, although not on this album) have provided for other Bay Area luminaries such as Ludicra, Hammers of Misfortune, and the Lord Weird Slough Feg. Shirley himself has worked with Grayceon on four previous releases, and he has a perfect grasp of exactly how to bring out the band’s unique combination of sounds. Zack Farwell’s drums are treated with such unfussy immediacy that it makes one wonder why anybody would ever want drums to sound any other way. And when Farwell whips up a punishing clatter that chases Perez Gratz’s cello and Max Doyle’s guitar out front to prove themselves, you can feel the physical effort of each hit.
Another strength of Mothers Weavers Vultures is its economy, because even though each song is a dense, gradually unfolding piece, no song is ever overstuffed, and the album arcs to a close in a satisfyingly compact 44 minutes. The album’s second side kicks off with the immensely heavy plod of “This Bed,” a song so dripping with woundedness and disdain that it practically drags its iron boots through the frame. But the lyrics have an evocative kernel of hard-won wisdom: “We never lose all our demons; we survive them.” The quiet section around the eight-minute mark features some rather tricky but understated multi-tracking of the guitar and cello, which weaves a thoroughly hypnotic spell.
“The Lucky Ones” is a magical piece which forms the undeniable heart of the album from both a musical and lyrical perspective. Doyle’s guitar frames the song with a bent riff that drops its last beat in order to make the listener really pay attention, while Perez Gratz’s cello swirls around and colors the edges. Throughout the song’s 13-minute span, the two stringed instruments seamlessly trade roles, each stepping forward to play lead and easing back to provide rhythmic and textural balance. The sassy breakdown that comes in right before the 6:00 minute mark introduces the pitch-perfect lyrics that give the album its title:
“We are all mothers of this place we call home /
We are all weavers of this cloth we shroud ourselves in /
We are all vultures feeding on what’s left for dead.”
But from there, it’s a toss up for the most affecting element of the song – it could be the perfect earworm chorus that has Perez Gratz’s multi-tracked vocals in close harmony, or it could be the frantic whirlwind whipped up by Farwell’s drums just after the seven-minute mark that leads into a thematically stunning trade-off between ascending and descending riffing/bowing from Perez Gratz and Doyle, which seems slyly to alternate pointing to heaven and hell before meeting back in the middle.
And while those three lines above work best as a trio, the emotional emphasis sketched by the music draws the listener’s attention mainly to the first line: “We are all mothers of this place we call home.” It’s a simple message, but deep: we are all of us in the business of creating the world we inhabit. Perez Gratz has already put the finer point on it: there is no heaven and hell, which means that this is it. What we make here on earth is all there is. No gods, no afterlife, no supernatural escape hatch or deus ex machina to magic away our mistakes and our pain and our foolish, beautiful, impossible love. The most ferociously impassioned vocal turn of the album is Perez Gratz wailing, “Open your eyes / Magic never dies.” But it’s not that kind of magic, as in some divine intervention. It’s the magic of the natural world, the magic of living as finite beings in a world of such outrageous beauty. e e cummings said it, too: “for life’s not a paragraph / And death i think is no parenthesis.”
Mothers Weavers Vultures is supple in its movement but dense in its timbres. Doyle’s guitar is a golden sort of chewy midrange, and even when not multi-tracked, it fills the space beautifully while never sacrificing textural diversity. Several unlikely musical touchpoints came to mind while sitting with this album, from the self-titled Dresden Dolls album to SubRosa’s More Constant than the Gods to My Dying Bride’s The Angel and the Dark River to Acid King’s Middle of Nowhere, Center of Everywhere. Rather than indicating any particular kinship between Grayceon and any of these artists or branches of the genre tree, I think this speaks to the universality of Grayceon’s approach: three people playing passionate, smart, emotionally intense music with the tools at their disposal.
Love is unfashionable, which speaks to the emotional cowardice of so many spaces which have been disproportionately the province of men (an indictment from which heavy metal hardly escapes). One of the things that makes the line from “The Lucky Ones” about motherhood all the more powerful is that Perez Gratz is herself a mother, and it’s hard not to imagine that “And Shine On” is directed to her children, with its central ultimatum a thing of aching closeness: “Love hard, wild heart.” The album closes with “Rock Steady,” which (at the admitted risk of reading too much biography into the lyrics) certainly seems like a beautiful affirmation of love for Perez Gratz’s partner. These songs are neither cloying nor needlessly cloaked in metaphor: they are about love, and they are for love. The kind of love it takes to radiate strength to one’s children, knowing they will face a difficult and uncertain future. The kind of love it takes to celebrate one’s partner all the more fiercely because the time that any of us have together is short and precious. Sturgill Simpson said it, too: “Love’s the only thing that ever saved my life.”
Just like words are incapable of capturing sounds, so too are sounds insufficient at translating love. Nevertheless, Grayceon is one of the very finest bands out there pointing the way to that world-building truth: love hard, wild hearts.