As pastimes go, abstinence struggles to win many fans as the denial of life’s delectable pleasures doesn’t play well in our instant gratification-society. It’s a pity because there is much to gain from gaining nothing via starving one’s body and mind to bring about physiological and psychological improvements. I have dabbled in this on many an occasion, spurning food, intimacy and comradery in pursuit of perfection. It can become an addiction and often I find myself self-limiting out of habit than for any real need. Case-in-point: music, or rather ducking-and-weaving practically anything that fell under the “prog” moniker. This was not born out from disdain of the genre and instead rose from a pessimism that I would ever recapture the feeling engendered by the best that Dream Theater, Opeth and Porcupine Tree had to offer. In short, I stopped looking. But no man is an island, and upon seeing that the new album by Grayceon was available, a band made up from former members of Giant Squid, Amber Asylum and Squalus, I decided to dip my toes back into neglected waters. Time to discover if good things come to those who wait.
I want to say straight off the bat that naming your album based on the chronological number of its release, in this case IV, is fraught with danger. For one thing, by having the name eschew a proper title you imply a level of quality and grandeur built from the notion that the band releasing a new album is worthy of fanfare alone. Worse still, you invite comparison to other bands that have gone down the same road, from Led Zepplin to Johnny Cash, Santana, Black Sabbath (Vol. 4, but close enough) and even Cyprus Hill. Prog is no stranger to courting hubris, and is partly why my interest in the genre waned, so you can imagine my trepidation in breaking my fast. On the other hand, seeing that the band has a common ancestor with Giant Squid was enough pedigree to merit an investigation, and despite a number of misgivings I can say that Grayceon’s ethereal take on prog left me satisfied.
If you’re expecting a technical workshop crackling with blinding showmanship then you’ll need to temper those expectations as IV is not that kind of prog record. The musical framework is sound and the musicianship laudable, but meticulous sonic complexity is not what’s on display and instead a rich, emotive framework held together by scintillating cello is the focus. With a purposeful southern pace that veers towards Clutch-like doom at times, opening track “Silver Moon,” blends in some djent but does so in a dreamlike manner. In fact, dreamlike is the single best adjective to describe the overall experience as the music is drenched in a somnambulant reverie that carries the listener aloft on milky waves. Aided by a cello that brings with it comparisons to the violin on My Dying Bride but with a Celtic flourish similar to The Sins of Thy Beloved, the string-work is threaded through every track and is the definitive element that binds everything together in a most pleasing manner.
While the music on IV is content to drift, churn and fold-in on itself, there are many moments where the pacing will shift into a whiplash inducing madness like on “By-the-Wind Sailors.” The feverish tête-à-tête between the guitar and cello is bracing, an agitating fisticuff of the sort peddled by Estradasphere. The greatest inflection point, however, are the vocals which are executed in a stretched-out, higher pitched delivery. It’s hard for me to hold a definitive opinion on their quality as I acknowledge the talent and range but find the singing at times mawkish and out of synch with the heavier sections. This leads me to my major criticism of the record which is its inability to commit to a set tone. All too often will sections flip from mild to aggressive to mild once more but the compositional rationale to execute such schisms is often lacking, leading to the impression that Grayceon can’t bear to commit to one idea over another. The latter half of the album settles down somewhat, the band honing in on what they want to say with precision but the feeling of an outfit unsure of its own identity remains skulking in the shadows.
Despite the flaws, IV was an album that lingered in my mind long after digesting the music, intruding into my subconsciousness like a guerrilla fighter waging asymmetric warfare on an isolated encampment. The erudite and stark lyrics cemented the record’s staying power, the incensed line of “I don’t care where you come from, respect should be in your vocabulary” from “Slow Burn” following me around like a loyal puppy. Credit to Grayceon for making me not only relieved that my return to prog was not a hideous mistake but a fruitful endeavour that led to the discovery of an enjoyable album, even if it can’t scale the heights reached by my favourites. Yes, abstinence has its place, but sometimes you have to let a little sin in your life.