Two years after their last release, Seattle indie rockers Great Grandpa are back with something that sounds decidedly different from their previous effort, deceptively softer at face value but with a dark depth immediately underneath that surfaces in more than one point of this Four of Arrows, a long player getting its name from a rather ominous tarot card, which in turn, provides a key for reading the many subtexts in its eleven tracks.
The songwriting is a particularly strong suit of this band, with clear attention put not only in the structure of the individual songs, but in the way that they fit as pieces of a larger whole. While the pace of the record is for the most part mellow, an underlying tension is present throughout, and emerges in spontaneous bursts here and there, cultivated by a recurring use of acoustic guitar and by Alex Menne’s vocals, which can switch from soothing to urgent within the same verse.
Sudden transitions are another trademark of the songwriting in this album, with several tracks starting on a type of sound before turning rather abruptly into another. These transitions – whether they are from a more understated kind of sound into a dirtier and more pressing one, or vice versa from something disquieted and cracked with distortions into a more reassuring, gentle ballad pace – inject an element of the unexpected in a record whose main problem could be a danger of repetition. The downside of giving an album a clear, distinctive voice is that the same patterns can come to resurface too frequently, an issue that Four of Arrows is not entirely devoid of; in part the returning of similar musical phrases and ideas creates a thread running through the record, making it feel as a cohesive whole, but in places it is still too much. On the other hand, this means that the many innovative tidbits scattered across the album come out even more powerfully, especially in the second half, after the mid-point marked by ‘Endling,’ a piano-dominated instrumental which has the easy flow of running water and even a bit of a jazzy vibe in its chords.
In most of the other tracks, the sound is often reminding of the garage rock-pop of the late ‘90s and early 2000s, with a pressing, almost metallic quality to the vocals that owes something to the likes of Cranberries and Garbage, an exploration of the many ways in which the building blocks of the classic rock ballad can be disassembled and put back together in different ways, and a subtle electronic vein seeping through to create a dirtier sound when a darker mood is needed. This is set up pretty much immediately by the opening track, ‘Dark Green Water,’ with a slow and tense start, a guitar that starts scratchy and then turns mellow, and a pace made of sudden stops and snaps, exploding from silence into bursts of music.
Some of the best tracks in the album have something of the folk-rock tradition in them; ‘English Garden‘ (aptly for its title), ‘Rosalie,’ and ‘Split Up the Kids‘ all evoke a distant echo of Simon and Garfunkel, especially in the guitar work and use of backing vocals. These more reflective tracks create an eerie, atmospheric mood that is prominent throughout; in some way, this album sounds like what a haunted house is supposed to feel like. Drums often stand out in their ability to support this mood through a use of tempo and pacing that is inventive but never disruptive. Listen out for the rhythm section in particular in ‘Digger,’ a track that has its greatest strength in the drum work, but also in ‘Treat Jar,’ which at first listen might come across as the closest to classic pop in the entire record.
Dirtier sounds and distortion infiltrate many of the tracks as a most welcoming perturbing element. ‘Bloom,’ for instance, has a deceptively classic intro for a rock ballad that gets immediately distorted into something else, and there is a feeling here, as elsewhere, that the band is deliberately playing around with the expectation surrounding ballads as a whole, one of the most successful devices in this album. This use of dirty, scratchy guitar and distortion, sometimes severe, gets more noticeable towards the end of the record; ‘Human Condition‘ starts dirty and groggy, then clearing into a fairly classic bass line before reprising the less conventional section again, making the listener feel like they’re sinking into the song. The closing song, ‘Mostly Here,’ perhaps slightly overlong for its sound but overall one of the most interesting and thought-provoking, also starts abrupt and distorted, with a sense of drunken stumbling that is mainly channelled by the guitar and the wailing vocals; the stumbling, falling-apart instrumental sound at the middle of the track feels like an open question mark. Odd guitar sounds are also a feature, albeit more subtly so, in ‘Mono No Aware,’ a song with an echoing, bouncing pace that makes it feel more artificial-sounding, cooler and electric.
Overall the album leaves the impression of something struggling to break through, managing in good part but not entirely. Often there are intriguing hints of something extremely interesting that then doesn’t go quite the whole way. The best sections by far are the ones in which this reined-in feeling dissipates completely, bursting into louder, dirtier kinds of sound that feel very much like a liberation. The record as a whole, when it embraces this broader breadth, becomes more powerful, more intense, and more compelling. The feeling one is left with is that of a band very much on the way to break completely free from the shackles of conventional indie sound – and what lies beyond that is going to be very exciting.
Great Grandpa’s Four of Arrows is set for release on 25th October via Big Scary Monsters. Various formats and bundles can be pre-ordered here.