Though a recording trio and touring quartet as of 2013, GRMLN really refers to guitarist-founder Yoodoo Park. His two albums employ a full lineup frolicking among enough power chords to perform Blink-182’s entire discography, but on GRMLN’s first release, 2012’s Explore EP, the drum machine rocked harder than the record’s single living musician: Park’s surf-hymn overdubbing and glistening, crisscrossed guitars signified as bedroom-pop for its own sake, which it was. At 17, he recorded experimental sketches for personal driving music; at 19, he released the songs under the name GRMLN, using an asphalt slash through NorCal greenery as cover art and counterpoint to the impish pseudonym.
Not much on Explore prefigured the 23-minute “full-length” that followed in 2013, Empire, which, while concluding with an acoustic come-down, was straight late-90’s pop-punk. That is to say, Empire grows in the soil sowed by those snot-nosed tunesters who liked Bad Religion but could neither crack enough dick jokes nor communicate their peculiar alienation in a minute and a half. Pop-punks’ own genuine-yet-corporatized pleasure alienates them from pleasurable, autonomous musicianship; as a result, they have never been good at nor do they really desire hardcore’s anti-corporate compression. On Empire, Park’s verbal content is never exuberantly ribald (he is a child of mid-’00s-indie’s sentimental turn), but it is alienated and thus his songs adopt the expanded punk structures Green Day enabled as alienated, pop-addicted post-adolescents.
Now for Soon Away, the songs average a symphonic four minutes. Although Park enlisted his brother and bassist, Tae San, to help structure the songs, the increased labor show not in anything complex or proggy in the songs themselves — those remain firmly power-pop minimalist. The labor registers because Park composed double-stuff GRMLN without decompression or spacing out. That is to say, the songs are twice as long and equally immune to boredom. Even better than Empire, Soon Away‘s songs have more identifiers than their hooks, and that without sacrificing hooks. It returns to Empire‘s cushioned, Merge-chic production, but thinks through more instrumental and structural possibilities than showed up on the previous album, which we can now consider, for all of its recidivist joy, a mere flexing of GRMLN’s ternary muscle.
At the level of the song, Soon Away is a success qualified by fairly common qualifiers. When Park says at the beginning of “Crawling Into You”, “Your words are minimal, but your thought are endless,” I wish it were more reportorial than volitional, but the guitar’s shortly attending crunch and swoop shut me up. Over a whole forty minutes, the lack of sustained lyrical interest wearies, excepting a few sentimental refrains: opener “Jaded”‘s “Go outside, be the one you want and not for me”; “Faux”‘s “I never thought I’d die alone / I never thought I’d be alone with you.” Better are the moments of musical-lyrical reciprocation, as when noise blots out Park at the end of “Avoider” while he sings “I can’t protect you anymore / I can’t avoid it anymore”. In its escalation, the noise sounds like a plane taking off; at crescendo, a broken loudspeaker.
Best are those moments of non-lyrical invention, which pop-punk might need more than poetics. The minimal “Numb” demonstrates enough faith in a real live rhythm section that, though sonically just as forthright as ever, the guitar plays only in the background, a treble sweep surrounding Park’s voice. Tae San gets the melody here. It swings reluctantly like a heavy pendulum, embedded in the rudimentary rhythm. Sharing “Numb”‘s peculiar status as lacking a high-keyed lead line, “Of Nothing” is similarly tireless. Hooks get stuck; these two abjure hummability for momentum, their musemes at the level of the beat. With the other songs’ intense riffage, these tiny units of repetition seem cerebral and considered, lacking anthemic, universalist doping. “Of Nothing” is the longest song of GRMLN’s existence but never exhausts the verse-chorus/drone-buzz opposition, even when Park, as is his wont, solos above the twelfth fret. In these songs, he’s thinking. Catchiness, as we know from Adorno, is a distraction.
So what is he considering, what does it all mean or do? Only after the CD loops back on itself does its larger structure become audible. Opener “Jaded” and closer “Soon Away” share a nearly identical riff, though it gets more submerged in the latter. The choruses reflect each other too: “Go outside, be the one you want” and “I’m turning out the lights in my mind”. The pair marks the endless and symmetrical process of leaving and returning, and the mind as an object deeply linked to space. It can be left like a house, and a change in its being attends a change in environs — going outside. Over ten songs, the riffs sound repetitive, but they signify as repetition. Consider that Yoodoo Park was born in Japan and returns every summer while living in Northern California, and that his previous releases’ titles indicate a restless and placeless groping around a center. GRMLN’s meditative and melancholic punk works in a historically-contextualized-as if not actually white genre (which is not lost on Park), but Soon Away‘s alienation is not suburban, it’s global-capitalist, which leaves even less hope for resolution. The nature of an empire is that a place is never itself; Soon Away‘s work identifies certain pleasures to be found in a diaspora — art can be made placeless if someone who feels placeless empathizes with it. GRMLN refers backward to recontextualize Californian pop-punk alienation as not merely the complaints of middle-class youth, but an expression of total deracination. Musical nostalgia is rarely just sonic; it’s necessary for those who never come from, but only leave and come to, over and over.