[25 March 2009]
If you like Grammatics, you’ll probably love Grammatics. The foursome from Leeds, UK, are just the types to inspire devotion. They’re emotional but swaggering, occasionally dissonant but always sweetly melodic, immediately familiar yet difficult to place, and you can bet they’re a growing number of people’s new favourite band. But as sure as they’ll win hearts they’ll also repel; factor in a sullen-faced singer, lyrics about “transcendental lullabies” and unabashedly sentimental delivery and you can almost see the backlash on the horizon.
In truth much of this divisiveness stems from Owen Brinley, that sullen-faced singer. Brinley’s vocals were the main attraction of his previous outfit Colour of Fire, a volatile but unexceptional four-piece who enjoyed modest popularity in Britain a few years back. Thankfully he’s dropped the occasional angry bark of bygone years, a hand-me-down of American emo, but his timbre, though refined, retains the same sense of passion and vigour. It’s technically superb, but also relentlessly solemn, and there’s times when Grammatics can droop underneath its own weight as a result.
However, while Brinley’s flexible register is still a focal-point, Grammatics enjoy far more synthesis and instrumental interdependence that their frontman’s previous troupe. And there are times on this debut album when everything comes together simply sublimely to induce the type of intoxicating, neck-hair-teasing moments that made you fall in love with music in the first place. Two-minutes into opener “Shadow Committee”, the band drop the jerky staccato smokescreen of its intro and launch full-pelt into a scintillating chorus (of sorts), Brinley’s falsetto and Emilia Ergin’s cello soaring together in tandem. The same combination reaps magnificent rewards at the finale of “Polar Swelling”, Brinley turned yearning choir-boy to plead “I can’t afford your love” above an incredibly rich, warm and graceful multi-instrumented arrangement that is perfectly, lovingly crafted as opposed to cluttered.
Ergin herself plays a more proactive role than the mere aesthetic augmentation that cellists are wont to offer many rock-oriented bands. The rhythm of “Polar Swelling” is cued by Ergin’s rapid rounds of scales, the otherwise sober “Broken Wing” (which begins as a ballad but winds up Grammatics‘s heaviest cut) tempered by her soothing strokes, while even buoyant “Vague Archive” feeds into a coda founded on its string section.
It is individual moments like this that stand out, even after you’ve become intimately accommodated with Grammatics. These twelve songs are difficult to précis because the impressions they lend you are fragmentary rather than whole. Admittedly, the outstanding sections noted above understandably surpass the bulk of the album’s fare, and there are one or two stodgily unremarkable tracks (“Rosa Flood”, in particular, falls by the wayside). But really, Grammatics is fragmentary because of its staunch refusal to repeat anything. The band barely retread any ground even on the same song, saving the odd chorus. Even the chorus of “The Vague Archive”, so sweet that most pop bands would kill to ruin it, sees the light of day only twice.
As I said, Grammatics will have its detractors. The album is endlessly earnest, and perhaps overwrought. And this, for better or worse, is only emphasised by the inaccessibility and impressionism of Brinley’s lyrics, which convey general moods (usually sombre) rather than impress those moods upon you. In this sense, perhaps the beauty of Grammatics is a detached beauty, rather than emotionally engaging. You’ll sit back, listen and admire but you might not truly connect. But this needn’t detract from the realisation that it is beautiful, superbly conceived and executed with as much yearning, creativity and meticulousness as technical finesse. We talk of promising debuts (and this is one), but Grammatics would be proud of this at any stage in what they’ll soon be calling their career.