Review Summary: Defining their genre, whatever that is.3 of 3 thought this review was well written
Grayceon is a genre-busting something-metal band from San Francisco that is defined by their instrumentation in a deep way. The lineup:
- Jackie Perez Gratz - electric cello
- Max Doyle - guitar
- Zack Farwell - drums
- Vocal duties are shared by everyone
String instruments are unusual in metal on a statistical basis only. We've all heard the same trendy bands stick a violin or cello into the mix to add a bit of grandeur or weepy melodrama. It might be the real thing, it might be a keyboard effect, or it might be cribbed from a PBS philharmonic in post-production. The music could very well be made without the strings, or they could be replaced by synths, mellotron, acoustic piano, or woodwind with little difference.
Nothing's inherently wrong with this, but it's not Grayceon. Theirs is music that couldn't exist in any other form. The cello is played like a cello -- taken to its limits, of course, but a cello nonetheless. The compositions define the music and are, in turn, defined by the tools at hand. If Gratz played the violin, piano, saxophone, or another guitar, the music would have to be crafted entirely differently. There's something special about this kind of music. You feel as though you're witnessing the birth of something new, different, something that simply could not have existed before.
And nothing here sounds conventional. Doyle's finger-picked style gives the guitar a round, organic feel that echoes something of the cello's melancholy timbre and goes from deliberate and precise to balls-to-the-wall aggressive. Farwell's drumming is creative and explosive in spite of its odd tuning. More than any other band I've heard, Grayceon's drums are as critical to the sound as the melodic instruments. They're the harbingers of aggression in Sounds Like Thunder
, growing more and more frenetic behind the cautious cello lines and subdued guitar picking until the song erupts into its central groove.
The vocals, too, are strange: languid male-female harmonies that range from restrained to heartbreakingly delicate (Song For You
is the only track where they slip into metallic ferocity). Mixed at about the same level as the instrumentation, they're another component on equal footing with the rest rather than the focus of the music.
Each of these components meet and create something greater than the sum of its parts in the compositions. It's difficult to characterize their sound aside from the aforementioned "organic." They sound like Grayceon: intricate, slow- or mid-tempo, heavy, emphasizing point and counterpoint. The guitars crunch their round notes at the low end as the cello soars to euphoric heights, then comes crashing down as the guitar slowly climbs its way up. The drums grow heavy with restrained violence, abort the ascent, and the entire mix suddenly veers into a head-banging riff. This is music that absorbs, that grabs hold and doesn't let go. Where I find myself blown away and then bored by outright gorgeous music like Sigur Ros, the play counts on Grayceon's albums keep rising. It's beautiful, yes, but in a complex and thoughtful way that gives it nearly unlimited replay value.
Of course, the album is not without its faults. The vocals are the easiest criticism to make; they're off, somehow, as often as they're beautiful. Part of this is just an unusual style that grows on you over time, but Gratz in particular has not quite mastered her range yet. Song For You
features the vocals at their best and worst: 0:40-0:43 is well done, 0:43-0:45 is painful, and the intensity at 0:58-1:00 is great. Ride
is another major weakness. It meanders for too long at the beginning and then nearly loses its hard-won momentum two-thirds of the way through. That said, its final four minutes are an agonizing tension-building exercise with a payoff that makes the rest of the song seem like a worthy prelude. This is one of the best moments on the album and should be required listening material for post-rock and post-metal fans.
Despite its flaws, Grayceon has crafted an unusual and brilliant album. There's no cliche, no formula, and no band I know of prepares you for what to expect. Give the odd vocals and tunings a chance to grow on you and you'll discover an overlooked gem of post-this prog-that something-metal.
As of this writing I've heard the albums Grayceon, This Grand Show, and All We Destroy.