Any group with an electric cello as a lead instrument is automatically going to stand out. Place said cello alongside a finger-picked electric guitar and drums in a heavy-metal trio and you’ve got some serious sore-thumb action. With its eponymous debut, San Francisco’s Grayceon proves that a vertically held string instrument can shred just as hard as its electrified horizontal counterpart. But there’s way more to this record than its unconventional instrumentation. Grayceon’s got songwriting chops to burn and some damn creative musicianship that makes the track times — between nine and twenty minutes — fly by.
Grayceon’s cellist, Jackie Perez Gratz (also part of the art-rock group Amber Asylum), doesn’t merely recreate heaviness with an instrument that wasn’t made for it. Instead, she arranges her parts to play to the cello’s strengths. Gratz makes it sigh and moan like only a bowed instrument can on the expansive opening segment of “Sounds Like Thunder,” and she uses the cello’s natural gritty timbre to add heft to guitarist Max Doyle’s chunky thrash riffing on “Song for You.” When Gratz and Doyle (a member of Walken) play in the same range, the overtones collide and a ghostly bottom end emerges — Grayceon has no need for a bassist. And somehow, drummer Zack Farwell (also in Walken) knows exactly how much space to take up. It’s rare that a metal drummer comes off simultaneously as raw, sensitive, and technical, but Farwell swings it, and all without a double-kick drum.
With such painstaking care taken on instrumental interplay and development of themes, Grayceon’s largely instrumental songs verge on chamber music. Baroque cadences and complex counterpoint give “Ride” a classical elegance, but not once do the tricky parts hold back the song’s inertia. Some sections are beautiful and airy; others cram an album’s worth of heaviness into just a minute or two. Half of the fun is finding out what’s around the corner. The other half is the giddy rush of hearing a band that stretches the boundaries of metal while offering the same visceral thrill that started you head-banging in the first place.