by Chad Jewett
Outer Heaven, the new LP from Toronto post-hardcore quartet Greys, works best when it’s at its most bifurcated, either sparkling prettily or fuming with acidic bite. The band is uniquely gifted at finding hooks in sonic forms where there normally are none; If Anything, the band’s last full-length, was a pop record despite itself, so that a song like “Good For A Girl”, which snarled back at punk-scene sexism, landed its sharp critique with a chorus that stuck like caramel. The brilliance of Greys is the way in which the band has routinely carved tunefulness directly into its gnarled noise-punk. This continues to be the band’s most salient skill, and the briefest, brusquest songs on Outer Heaven are still nevertheless secretly pop songs, as on “In For A Penny”, where a chorus of “I’m feeling ugly todaaaaay” doesn’t quite bely how pretty the melody delivering that sentiment is, which is to say nothing of the song’s spotless, glimmering bridge.
It’s an ideal balance for Greys, those moments where the band pivots from fury to loveliness, not least of which because it underlines the power of each. Take the movement from album opener “Cruelty”, a shimmering slow-core sigh that finds singer Shehzaad Jiwani filling pauses in the song’s chiming minimalism with a bright tenor: “See you standing in the dark / We want to know your name / Want to see your face / Before we hurt you” (one of the many moments on the album where issues of cruelty and alienation are broached with steely directness). The song is haunting and flawless, and all its airy warmth is contrasted with quaking immediacy by “No Star”, a song that builds and builds and builds, from its cleared-out first verse to a suddenly accelerating back two-thirds. We get the same principle in reverse at album’s end, as the initially corrosive “Sorcerer” leaks into the aptly named slow-burner “My Life As A Cloud.” These combustive changes – from the soft-lit gleam to shaped chaos and vice versa — mark the best instinct powering Outer Heaven.
Yet the album also tries to layer these approaches, a daring attempt at bathing the quartet’s D.C.-circa-’93 noise in the billowing diffuseness of shoegaze, the latter of which has been en vogue in emo, with almost uniformly dull results. Greys, to their credit, have the imagination to see what those bleary sounds might achieve when melted atop scrappy art punk. Take “Blown Out”, where Wall-of-Sound drums and a mix balance that skews towards “defamiliarizing” (vocals way up, snares echoing for several beats) is paired to a garage-stomp chord progression and a melody that recalls Green Day by way of the Buzzcocks. The experience amounts to hearing a sneakily traditional punk single chopped up and remixed to accentuate only the least expected angles. Indeed, much of the LP leaves things like snare drums bathed way beneath washed-out guitar haze, all challenges to what you normally assume makes songs like these go. Take “Complaint Rock”, which blankets its rhythm engine beneath a scouring lead bass and chem trails of ringing chords. Yet above all that is a hook of early-Wire vintage “I hate it! I want it! I need it! I love it!”.
As with “In For A Penny”, the song’s latter half ducks into a woozy, whirling bridge, all cloudy echoes and muffled tendrils of notes. And like “In For A Penny”, the hard lines between those two pallets – the song’s opening bombast and its late-arriving impressionism – make for some of the most thrilling moments Outer Heaven has to offer. The LP is almost a relief in its willingness to experiment, even if the formulas of experiments like “If It’s All The Same To You” — which finds itself in a too-placid middle ground that “Blown Out” more ably navigates — have shaky chemistry, the band’s new taste for bedroom-pop atmospherics dampening its best sharp angles. But the upside of those moments is that we nevertheless find Greys exploring not just the outer edges of loud punk music, but new frames for how we might hear those songs on record. It’s a lot more interesting to hear a band trying to figure out how Siamese Dream would sound like atop Yank Crime than to watch a band calculate a gradual transition from the latter to the former. There’s a salutary effect in seeing Greys trying to find new and interesting ways of shaping post-hardcore’s muscular angularity as opposed to just trying to slowly move its focus elsewhere. What we end up with is something like Fugazi’s End Hits – a challenging collection of quietly daring ideas and approaches that nevertheless continues to prize its own singular source of energy.