Grammatics - Grammatics
Simon Jay Catling 03/02/2009
“Landfill indie”- a term coined quite wonderfully by The Word magazine- finally seemed to be on the way out last year, albeit slowly. For every Scouting For Girls celebrating the homecoming of Britain's Olympic team there was a Fratellis album in sharp free fall, whilst for every new Razorlight release there was a Joe Lean and the Jing Jang Jong canning their own release plans. Jubilation at any of this was somewhat offset however by the fact that in its place no one seems to really know what to do other than turn to the 80s (of all decades) for inspiration; and so within the last twelve months we've seen the NME jump from Crystal Castles to Late Of The Pier and now White Lies in desperate attempts at scene cultivation. Meanwhile the BBC struggled to think of any British guitar bands of note to tip in their Sounds of 2009 list, which begs the question: is there still room for guitar bands in the late noughties? Landfill indie may be the dearth of creativity but there's certainly some argument that many of the proceeding acts have truly replaced it with anything much more boundary exploring.
Where Grammatics fit in is by not fitting in at all; the Leeds group are the antithesis to every Courteneers or View on the planet, and yet they also stand a mile away from the increasing torrent of electro-throwback type bands that are coming out of the woodwork. The band's opening trio of singles- Shadow Committee, D.I.L.E.M.M.A and The Vague Archive (all included on this debut) hinted at a group who weren't afraid to fall on their sword; and this LP proves that like Leeds-peers and last year's bright prospect Wild Beasts, the four-piece are willing to put themselves up on a pedestal for target practice thanks to the sheer theatricality and pomposity of their work. Unlike Wild Beasts though, there's not a cheeked tongue in sight; Grammatics the message is clear: this is what we sound like, you either like us or you don't.
It helps that the post-pop outfit possess a front man of remarkable charisma and vocal talent in Owen Brinley. As a youthful, indignant, angst-ridden Owen Williams he howled and raged with Matt Bellamy style histrionics as vocalist of punk-metallers Colour Of Fire. In his new guise however Brinley possesses greater maturity, poise and reflection- growing up is clearly at the forefront of the singer's mind. Opening track Shadow Committee fearfully looks towards another birthday as “just another crippling comedown away” whilst on Cruel Trick Of The Light he is fully aware that “we're all getting older”. Vocally he's wonderful, tilting from hushed, drifting tones to recapturing some of his old Colour of Fire vigour in bombastic finishes to the likes of D.I.L.E.M.M.A and Relentless Fours. The appearance of upcoming singer/songwriter Laura Groves in the middle of the album too is a delight; she and the lead singer combine beautifully, with Inkjet Lakes leaping and jumping around the mirage of soft reverberation and contrastingly cutting cello tones. The addition of Groves is just another example of what's making the Leeds area so good as a music scene at the moment; the artists truly are peers in the warmest sense and it's this 'help each other out' attitude that will push the likes of Grammatics, Groves, The ABC Club and Pulled Apart By Horsesso far this year.
Whilst it is Brinley who possesses a voice of potent fortitude, it's the band as a whole that combine to make Grammatics debut album what it is: a journey through a mixture of simple, fun pop, skyscraping epic statements and lovelorn balladry. Cellist Emilia Ergin is a constant presence throughout, whether providing the sharp juddering melody of the scattershot Rosa Flood or adding depth or resonance to the otherwise straight forward ballad Broken Wing. Drummer Dominic Ord and bassist Rory O'Hara meanwhile guide the tempo of the album wonderfully- Ord's off-beat drumming is notably prominent in the aforementioned quirky, dramatic pop of D.I.L.E.M.M.A whilst O'Hara's bass is a constant grounding when things threaten to get a bit too convoluted for their own good.
The result is a collection of songs that show as much in their ambition as they do in their sense of accessibility. These are still pop songs, but they're pop songs with twisted song structures, differing time signatures and dabs of pretension. The Vague Archive doesn't even contain a proper chorus but starts out as one of the catchiest tracks on the album before the fillip of an end release of straining strings and lingering chords; Murderer is a feast of echoes, ambient strains of sound and drifting melodies. First song Shadow Committee and the closing Swan Song meanwhile sandwich the album perfectly; the former is a statement of intent, with a suitably haunting introduction leading into sharp hooks and perfect juxtaposition of quiet and loud dynamics all enveloped in a hearty dose of the grandiose. The latter meanwhile comes across as a dark finale to a play; Owen Brinley's guitar clambering over the top of Egin's cello. Nowhere however do Grammatics realise their ambition better than on album anchor and six minute opus Relentless Fours- a track found midway through Grammatics that leaves you breathless thanks to a brilliant execution of a plethora of ideas. From the simple repeated tape loop, through the male/female intertwining duet to the final thundering tumultuous finish of chords and feedback it's central point on the album is recognition of the pivot it plays in comparison to the rest of the LP's themes and concepts. Metaphorical lyrics or otherwise it's an epic track that seems to bemoan the state of fallen celebrity, general apathy and the public's need for showbiz sensationalism in the repeated line “everyone loves a breakdown”.
In having such a perfectly realised debut (it should be noted that James Kenosha's production of this album is excellent, an example of compression used at its best to make a crisp and concise set of songs), it's hard to pick out flaws- Broken Wing and Cruel Trick Of The Light do feel slightly 'ballad-by-numbers', as was potentially always going to be the case; they're the most straight ahead songs on here. In addition, the ever changing tempo and energy of the album doesn't quite reignite following Relentless Fours, but these are trifling issues. Because on their self-titled debut, Grammatics have managed to achieve that increasingly difficult and incredibly exciting feat of managing to sound like a 'Step Forward'. Whether people will be tolerant enough to drop their 'cooler-than-thou' indie guard and take to the group's grandiose sincerity is another matter entirely; but those that persevere will hopefully hear what these enthusiastic ears can- a small but definite nudge onwards in alternative popular music. Owen Brinley sneers that “we only want relentless fours” and recent history suggests we do; yet hopefully it'll be a statement that'll ultimately ring false. Music doesn't have to be there just to connect, but to challenge and provide admiration as well. To answer the original question then; is there still room for guitar bands in the late noughties? It has to be an emphatic yes.