I’ve only relatively recently become aware of a sub genre of rock music called cello rock. What’s cello rock? It is what the name suggests: rock music specifically characterized by regular use of cellos (plus sometimes other bowed string instruments such as the violin and viola), alongside or in place of more traditional rock instruments such as electric guitars, electric bass guitar, and drums. Prominent bands within this sub genre include Apocalyptica and Rasputina, but did you know that there’s actually a sub-sub genre: progressive cello rock (or maybe cello prog rock), i.e. a sub genre of prog rock where the cello plays an essential and defining role.
So far, it’s not exactly a huge field. In fact until last year I thought it only contained one artist, Elias Kahila. But now the size of the field has doubled with the arrival of Grayceon, a trio from San Francisco consisting of Jackie Perez Gratz on electric cello and vocals, Max Doyle on guitars and vocals, and Zack Farwell on drums.
You don’t get that many trios in prog rock (obviously ELP started a trend and several bands have followed it, but it’s still far more common for prog groups to have four or five members) and of those you could probably count the number of them with a cello in their ranks on one hand. I think it’s something about the epic sound of prog that means there usually needs to be four or more musicians on hand, and often one of them is a keyboard player who provides the lush layers we so commonly associate with prog.
Grayceon are in that sense quite an odd band – the press release that came with the CD describes their compositions as epic and spacious, and there’s the contradiction that I might otherwise have found difficult to put into words. There is a great deal of space on offer in a lot of their music, something which is perhaps more typical of post rock rather than prog rock bands, but then there’s also a lot of complexity and variety to the compositions, which means, for example, that the 20 minute closing track, “Ride” doesn’t feel like it’s anywhere near that long.
It’s in many was a tricky album to review, given that there are only four tracks, one of which is the aforementioned 20 minute closer and the other three vary in length from nearly four minutes through to 12 and a half minutes, plus on first listen the music could be described as rather dark, cold and uninviting. But as with a lot of music, multiple listens reveal so much more: it’s still dark, for certain, but not self-consciously so; the apparent coldness is more easily recognised merely as a by-product of the instrumentation and style of composition, and with further listens that coldness is replaced by a recognition of the multiple levels, the subtle variety and the considerable technical ability on display; and with those extra listens each track becomes increasingly more inviting (it still often creates an ominous atmosphere, but in a good way).
It’s not always easy listening – the combination of the band’s generally dark mood combined with their willingness to take artistic risks guarantees this – but it’s almost as though the band are challenging you to predict where they’re going to turn next and despite the apparently limited palette of electric cello, guitars, drums and occasional vocals this proves very difficult to do. At times they’re quite clearly playing heavy metal... with a cello, but that’s still what it is. Elsewhere, it’s very distinctly prog rock, and in other places you can hear musical steps in the direction of classical chamber music, post rock passages, eccentric rhythmic twists and turns more common to math or pronk rock, plus there are forays into the worlds of folk and jazz.
I’ve heard people suggest similarities with the sounds of King Crimson (I’d guess it’s the David Cross era they’re referring to), Opeth, Elend and Paatos. I can see how each of those reference points makes sense and fans of those bands should definitely check Grayceon out, though collectively this debut album doesn’t sound like any of them.
The drumming is frequently thunderous and frantic, whilst the cello and guitar combinations are staggeringly inventive, enabling the cello parts in particular to vary between soft and mournful, on the one hand, fearsome thrash metal, on the other, and virtually everything inbetween.
Each track offers something different. There’s an almost Godspeed You! Black Emperor opening to “Sounds Like Thunder”, which then goes all Iron-Maiden-with-a-cello about half-way through, before an almost Gentle Giantesque twist, and then back and forth between those extremes throughout its nine minutes. “Song For You”, the shortest track on the album, is also the heaviest, the one with the fastest tempo and the one where each member of the band goes hell for leather. It’s not my favourite track on the CD, but definitely has a tremendous energy to it and stresses that this band really can rock. But for me it’s the final two tracks that show Grayceon in their best light, displaying every ounce of their compositional complexity, their musical chops, and their willingness to experiment, but without ever losing the listener in the process. There’s no noodling, no grandstanding or unnecessary showmanship, and no musical sidesteps just for the sake of it.
Ultimately this leads to an album that is difficult to describe and even harder to do justice to, plus it requires some patience and work from the listener, but it’s well worth sticking with because it’s brimming with ideas and provides a rich, fulfilling and beautifully crafted listening experience.
Best tracks: “Sounds Like Thunder”, “Into The Deep”, “Ride”.
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(All Album Reviews by avestin)
This album has very quickly leaped into my favourite albums list… Not the typical progressive metal, so don’t be deterred. Read on to know more.
It is thanks to a friend (Ruben a.k.a. Chamberry in prog archives) that I got to know this band. Listening to their Myspace samples, I ordered it through The End Records mail order service (The Omega Mail Order) along with their friends and tour mates (and a band that Jackie played with) Giant Squid (look for their band here in PA).
I wish there was something different I could listen to, something to have my brain listen to and get away from all the ruckus of everyday life, the stress and anxieties and drift upwards to some other place… Thankfully, there are bands like Grayceon to help us achieve just that. Obviously there are other great bands that do just that (and I have several favourite bands which so just that), but with Grayceon I get a different experience, a combination of elements from various sounds/influences/sources to create a sound of their own, a marriage of rawness and subtleness, compositions that have freedom to evolve in several directions.
Only 3 musicians here, yet the music in this album is full, rich, filled with a vast array of emotions, delivering mesmerizing musical textures which are at times aggressive and raw and at other times soft and delicate. Grayceon is a talented trio of Jackie Perez Gratz (electric cello, vocals), Zack Farwell (drums) and Max Doyle (guitars, vocals). They have been compared in sound but mostly in spirit to several bands, but it would not do justice with their music to do so, as they manage to be in a position where it’s a difficult task to describe their music. It can be said that it draws influences from several sources/bands, but their sound is all their own.
While only containing four tracks, tracks 1, 3 & 4 are rather lengthy and track 4 can even be considered an epic in length and structure of the track. Track 2 is sort of the antithesis of those other three songs, but it is still very much in line with the album, albeit much heavier, more aggressive and rapid. The other three tracks have a more dominant contemplative spirit, which doesn’t mean it does not get much more energetic throughout the song.
Grayceon offers appealing flavours for different and varying tastes. Some post-rock textures, some sludgy-metal (but of a lighter flavor than others in this field), some good old crunchy riffs of metal (with the occasional drum beat that remind me of the heavier side of metal), and great epics which are amplified in their effect by the magnificent use of the cello by Jackie and the vocal harmonies of Jackie and Max Doyle. The cello and guitar are used both as background and as solo instruments together and alone, which is another interesting aspect of their sound. They have the ability to create compelling music, long epic tracks with mesmerizing textures and vocal harmonies, alternating between a soft sound to a rapid and even raw sounding part in which the drums go wild.
With the tracks in this s/t album, you go on a “Ride” (as is one of the song titles) which passes through different emotional states between tracks and within a track (melancholy, pensive, rage and whatever else the music conjures in your mind). The songs, except for “Song For You”, start off calmly, with the guitar acoustically feeling the surface, as if testing whether the area is clear and it can begin to get louder, playing seemingly unrelated notes, trying to formulate a tune. And as you listen to the album more times, you realize that it is all pre-thought of, and they pretty much know where they are going, and that these are not totally random played notes, and they lead the way to the main theme or themes (as happens in “Ride” and “Into The Deep”). It develops (mostly slowly) into the bigger picture (meaning the main theme of the music) with big emphasis on the melody and the vocals, which accompany it at times. This is where the majestic touch is prevalent. If you take “Into The Deep”, what can be seen as the chorus part is made of the guitar and cello playing together an ascending repetitive pattern later followed by Jackie’s high and delicate voice in a descending pattern that balances the previous part. The guitar has a Crimsonian (as in King Crimson) sound and style here (Red-era) as opposed to the more metallic sound in other parts. I must say this description does not do justice with the music, but it’s the best I can do with my limited verbal skills (or rather lack of them). While the long 3 tracks have this majestic feel when coming to their occasional chorus, Grayceon has a raw and free spirit feel to them, which are probably due to the 3 instrument lineup, their unique sound. This freedom feel, is one attribute I love about their music. I feel that the music is such that it can develop in multiple ways, play in opposite and contradicting manners and cover a vast array of musical “fields”. This is why I am very eager to hear where they will go next in future endeavours. The music goes beyond metal and rock, takes what elements it needs from both and moves on, progresses further. Therefore, the term progressive is most suitable. The end result is compelling, engaging and most of all, beautiful.
The future seems bright for the band, and it is very interesting to hear how their next album will be like. For now, we can rejoice with this excellent release which is more than just an excellent addition to your music and “prog” collection.
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