Just when my mailbox makes me feel like modular synth jammers have taken over the world (not an altogether unpleasant feeling, but still), there's always a great band lurking around the corner to remind me of the creative bliss in songform, melody, and collaboration. Today, that band is Grex, a playful and adept group from Oakland who just released their debut as a trio, "Monster Music," on their own Brux label.
Grex has been around for several years as a duo with Karl Evangelista on guitar and Rei Scampavia on keys/horns, frequently collaborating with guest musicians. Their earlier recordings, which can be found on their Bandcamp page along with "Monster Music," feel more like compositional workshop outings, methodically combining improv chops and songwriting prowess into surprising left-field arrangements that carry a bit of "new music" formality. But with the addition of percussionist/drummer Robert Lopez as an official member of Grex, the beautifully-crafted melodies of older pieces like "Up Popped the Snake" from the band's repertoire are feeling more like familiar pages in a well-worn songbook. "Monster Music" packs as much aural nutrition as earlier iterations of the band, but this lineup also knows how to swing and how to rock outrageously.
Opening track, the instrumental "Toy Time," is a great introduction to the Grex approach. With nimble percussion expanding on 60s surf beats, and unpredictable, serpentine unison lines between guitar and organ, you can't help but smile as the music veers in and out of free improv passages. And I just adore the guitar tones Evangelista uses for melodic line part-playing: with a touch of overdrive and a hint of rotary speaker swirl, his sound blends gorgeously into organ tones, a signature orchestration that returns in unison lines all over the album. When he rolls back the Leslie swoosh, he picks up a perfect gritty edge, sliding between Charlie Hunter and Henry Cow-era Fred Frith vibes with ease.
This is one of those unusual albums that can serve capably as a bridge between song-oriented and really "out"-improv-oriented listening. Over half of the tunes feature prominent vocals, Scampavia taking most of the leads, and it's obvious that these songs were built to emphasize accessible, memorable melodies, no matter how far they might stray in the course of their arrangements. The instrumental pieces always have hummable, or at least quite danceable, hooks. And the cover tunes--"Guinea," a late-70s Don Cherry number, and "Holy Family," an old Ayler head included as an unlisted bonus track--have melodies deeply rooted in blues and gospel music, particularly tuneful choices from their composers' respective catalogs. But those solo sections. . .
With the exception of the straight-ahead ballad "Love Song," all of these arrangements leave room for solo/free improv work, and the group approaches most of these passages with a near-opposite sensibility, eschewing melody for density, embracing tone clusters, tons of effects, and simultaneous freakout sessions. It can be a little jarring at first, as the melodic sections of Grex tunes are played with a lot of sensitivity to dynamics, focused on nuance and detail instead of loud, broad strokes. Every group needs some kind of strategy to succeed with contrasts this extreme, and in the case of Grex, I think it's their sound choices that make it work. The organ tones have a vintage 60s timbre, reminding me a lot of Don Preston's dancing-on-the-keys approach in the chaotic sections of early Mothers jams. If those same parts were played on piano or using some harsh synth tones, I think things would feel more academic/serious or maybe confrontational, but the organ keeps things playful and approachable no matter now close the actual notes get to Cowellian clusters. Ditto for the guitar tones: Evangelista lays on plenty of effects when the moment is right, but his basic tone avoids those hyperfuzz sounds that cut you in half. While that works on some recordings, these sounds combine to allow for very listenable sections of group improvisation where the fun of interaction is clear to listeners without compelling folks to duck for aural cover.
There are several great guitar solos on "Monster Music" that stay closer to conventional jazz vocabulary and even blues work: the cover of "Guinea" mentioned before draws out more of a deep blues feel than the original, and "Christmas Song" works lots of tasty volume swells and country-ish bends into a playful, mostly legato solo section with a nice hint of delay. But my favorite moments on the album tend to be the written instrumental passages: the amazing lines introducing "Toy Time" and "Mole Cricket,"or the complex rhythmic shifts, chromatic mazes, and whammy pedal workouts throughout the brilliant "Hurdles." But my choice for a single from "Monster Music" would have to be "Romancing Stone," rich with introductory unison lines folding in on themselves, great vocals from Evangelista that are warmly reminiscent of Mike Keneally, awesome harmony vocals in the chorus, and lots of room for thoughtful drum work to shine in the open section at its center. And be sure to dig into "Up Popped the Snake," too--as mentioned earlier, the basic tune has appeared on a couple of previous Grex recordings, but this new trio arrangement hangs onto the haunting melody of the original while drawing listeners a little closer than previous versions with great organ/guitar interplay and great contrasts in drum parts across sections.
Grab your medium of choice (LP, CD, digital) at the Grex Bandcamp.
Copenhagen-based label Skrot Up recently sent me a batch of their latest cassettes that's completely blowing my mind, but before I can jump into those (or their killing German Army comp LP from last year), I have to highlight their brilliant "Island Records" LP from California-based composer Ernest Gibson. This album dropped late last year, and it's a rewarding listen with some of the best dark cinematic soundscapes I've heard in a long time.
Gibson is half of Net Shaker, and his solo debut has some sonic similarities with that project: almost every sound you hear is maxed out. Voices and guitars are obscured by copious reverbs with overdriven signals punched into the recording console, speaker cabinets are pushed into and slightly beyond their limits, and mixes feel like they've been left out in the sun for a faded finish. But "Island Records" follows a unique sonic path, less vocal oriented and aiming toward a unique blend of vintage exotica influences like Les Baxter and Martin Denny with the anxious, unsettling tensions of early industrial music.
As welcoming as it is menacing, this is a hard record to describe emotionally. The reverb-drenched guitars and flabby kick drum vibes of opening track "When You Get There" open a secret door to a crime noir-meets tiki bar kind of island universe, where you can't help dancing with the natives even though you can be certain they're just waiting for you to crash so they can lift your wallet. Like many of the pieces on "Island Records," this feels strongly like a film cue: it's visually evocative, and it simply creates and sustains a "scene" rather than developing through different formal structures. German Army fans should totally check this album out, too: Gibson and the GeAr crew are certainly kindred spirits, and some tracks like "All of Us Together" employ similar kinds of sounds and dark atmospheres.
This is a dream album if you're into guitar and bass tones that seem to come from a timeless Lynchian kind of space. Almost every piece is anchored by dirty, sweaty bass with a lot of midrange attenuation, sometimes feeling a little flabby and downtuned like "When We Switch" or "Loosa Lake," and sometimes pulled back in the mix to let the guitars and insectoid synths take the wheel, like the motorik-inspired momentum of "Groupwork." Guitars come in fifty flavors of overdrive, and the reverbs they're usually forced through bring out the more metallic overtones the instrument is capable of. While synths play a significant role here, to my ears they end up weaving around the substantial footprints of guitar and bass riffs, blending into the muggy reverb atmospheres left by decaying fragments of guitar.
Other than the more obvious rhythmic nods, exotica inspirations come though most clearly on some of the shorter pieces, like the drowned tribal vibes of "Ocean Section," or the singular orchestral swell that comprises "In a Daylight Loop." Other sections of this music have an almost modern-classical approach to arranging, dense clusters of sound coalescing into something approaching Ligetian soundmass within the mixes of "When I Translate" or "Moon Paean." And I'd be remiss to ignore the post-punk and new/no-wave influences percolating in this music, especially on the tunes where vocals rise closer to the surface. "Everywhere You Roam," for example, lurches through a humid landscape close to early Birthday Party, a creepy space lit by garbage can bonfires. And "Groupwork," as mentioned above, keeps up the dirty, raw postpunk vibe but with a kind of assertive rhythm that almost evokes Kraftwerk lost in a jungle.
This LP also features some of the most stylistically thoughtful artwork/packaging I've seen in a while. The album cover and images on the printed inner sleeve depicted isolated island scenes, and the oversaturated-then-faded treatment of the cover perfectly matches the music. There's a postcard of a tropical scene just like you'd pick up to send back to your cousins--wish you were here, dear reader! And the back cover has the kind of layout you might expect to find on a jazz or exotica album from the 50s, simple black and white with a fantastic hype-essay in three columns. But you don't have to hope for this one to turn up in some antique booth bin to begin immersing yourself in the sultry retrofuture: you can still get a pristine copy of your own at Skrot Up.