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Anyone who thinks cello is for wimps needs to hear Eric Dolphy. The skronky saxophonist is perhaps best remembered for his 1964 album Out to Lunch! But according to drummer and blogger Aesop Dekker, who plays in the black metal bands Agalloch and Ludicra, Dolphy’s highest achievement is 1960’s Out There, a modernist set distinguished by its thick sound and unorthodox instrumentation. Asked by NPR to name his five favorite jazz recordings, Dekker included Out There, he writes, “because of Ron Carter’s burly cello.”
Another musician who knows a thing or two about the muscularity, not to mention versatility, of the second largest member of the violin family is Dekker’s labelmate Jackie Perez Gratz, who sings and plays electric cello in the chamber-metal trio Grayceon. In addition to Gratz, the San Francisco-based outfit features a guitarist, Max Doyle, and a drummer, Zack Farwell, but no bassist. Few bands try to forge metal without electric bass. But any doubts about the ampleness of Grayceon’s low end are quashed on “Shellmounds,” the galloping highlight of the Grayceon’s third full-length All We Destroy. Even when Doyle plays spare, undistorted guitar, as he does on the Albion-leaning intro, Gratz’s churning accompaniment gives the song undeniable heft.
It doesn’t hurt that, when he does stomp on the distortion, Doyle has one of the meatiest guitar tones in metal. According to several metal blogs, Doyle plays without a pick. If true, this unusual approach might explain not only the otherworldliness of his tone—the roundness of the notes as they move through the air—but also the abundance of notes themselves. Even when chugging through brutal chord changes on the opening of the Zeppelin-esque “A Road Less Traveled,” Doyle always seems to be peeling off in new directions, weaving in and out of Gratz’s barbed-wire melodies in a way that makes Grayceon sound like something other—and something more—than a metal act with a cello instead of a bass.
Were Grayceon simply an instrumental band, it would be enough. But Gratz also happens to be a singer with an unusual approach. Though she can growl with the best of them—and while sitting down, to boot—she most often sings in a clear, sometimes pretty voice. As heard on the chug-free album-closer “War’s End,” Gratz often evokes Brit-folk chanteuses of yore, like Pentangle’s Jacqui McShee and Trees’ Celia Humphris. It is a style well-suited to the lyrics on All We Destroy, which are strife-weary if not anti-war. The bloody knife in the chorus of opener “Dreamer Deceived” may very well be a metaphor. But, by time Gratz implores someone to “sheath your blade” on the last song, it’s obvious that at least one of these weapons is real.
For those who need further proof, consider “Shellmounds,” where Gratz sings, “Oh, it breaks my heart in two/to imagine all the bones/all the bones and shards and shattered shells.” She seems to be lamenting the damage of war—not a very metal sentiment. But it is a very powerful moment on a record that, like a certain black metal musician’s favorite Dolphy album, derives strength from difference.