Ramblin’ Review: Giant Brain – Grade A Gray Day
Motor City motorik.
My preamble got out of hand. The actual review starts below the Bandcamp embed.
Ultimately, I suppose I have Ram Jam to thank for discovering Detroit krautrockers Giant Brain way back in my pre-Bandcamp days, when music was mostly acquired by plundering the high seas. It was the kind of rabbit hole that was common back then and which I immediately recognized when I finally discovered our music platform of choice. By then, I had hung up my peg leg for good, but now instead of pilfering someone’s hard drive, I could dive into their collection or entire label’s rosters or browse through chains of tags to end up who knows where, taking in (and legally procuring!) new music at a probably unhealthy speed.
Back when that speed was heavily impeded by actually having to download whatever lurked behind a promising band name (or, god forbid, go to a store), a friend had found a bizarre collection of 70 “CDs” (I doubt that physical versions ever actually existed) worth of metal covers. To say that 1 out of 10 renditions featured here were worthwhile would probably be generous, but nonetheless, I kept diving in and came away with interesting findings, such as the 2-minute rendition of “Welcome to the Jungle” by Zombie Apocalypse, The Crown‘s version of “Arise” including the originally intended intro, an American band doing Rammstein to predictably comedic effect, and some absolute chuds straight up sampling Hitler in their intro to “Raining Blood.” Yowza!
Among these 2 gigabytes of curiosities were several versions of “Black Betty,” one of them by Throttlerod. I doubt that even the band themselves would consider it a high point, but something about it intrigued me enough to investigate them further. Their albums turned out to be very different and very good (particularly Pig Charmer), and I learned that they were signed to Small Stone Records, a label specializing in stoner, psychedelic, and generally fuzzy rock. Having found one gem, I was soon searching the roster—on their website, if you can believe it—for other treasures, i.e. interesting band names (preferably with an interesting bio) that I would then type into Soulseek. Most of the bands in their catalogue didn’t stick with me, except for one.
I’d love it if there were 3 more corners to turn before we got to our destination, but no, the exception was Giant Brain, and the same bio that initially drew me in is still up there on the site. I’m not sure what it was that made me want to transfer their debut Plume (2007) to my hard drive at the dizzying speed of about 20 kilobytes per second; I’m pretty sure I had never actually heard krautrock, so that couldn’t have been it. I think something about the band name and concept being inspired by a painting of someone’s brain seemed cool to me. In any case, I was soon transfixed by the monotonous motorik beats and began to research the genre. I never ended up becoming a fervent krautrock fan, because to my mind, Giant Brain remained as singular within their genre as they were within their label’s roster, but from here on out, anything boasting a krautrock influence would always pique my interest.
I can’t really say what made for this singularity, as the premise of Plume doesn’t seem hugely different from the rest of the genre: straightforward, repetitive rhythms and catchy bass lines from brothers Al and Andy Sutton form the basis of most of the album, and on top of this foundation, various electronica (“Looper”), a Hammond organ (“Die Festzeit”) or, most often and most importantly, guitarist Phil Durr’s gritty riffs and wavering whammy bar shenanigans gradually build into ever more expansive and trippy soundscapes. Its hypnotic effect made such an impression on me that sophomore Thorn of Thrones (2009) quickly followed through the same illicit channels, albeit failing to hit quite as hard. With fourth member Eric Hoegemeyer taking on additional programming duties, the record upped the variety, losing some of the compelling simplicity of the debut. I’ve warmed up to it since, but haven’t jammed it nearly as much as Plume, which continues to hold a very special place for me. For the longest time, I thought that’s where this largely irrelevant story ended.
Fast forward some 13 or 14 years to a dreary Monday morning, and I almost tumble off the porcelain throne in surprise upon seeing a Bandcamp notification from Small Stone Records about a new Giant Brain album. That was unexpected! Equally unexpected and much less welcome was the story of its creation, but we’ll get to that later. For now, it’s time to get super hyped/super bored (depending on your feelings about instrumental psychedelic krautrock) as we dive into Grade A Gray Day.
The sound of the band is remarkably intact after all these years. Even on the timid opening of “Munich,” it’s apparent that Sutton’s drums and Durr’s guitar sound exactly as they used to on the predecessors, and it’s not long before the latter joyously explodes into a series of riffs resembling Angus Young’s golden days, all jangly noise and exuberance. It’s such a fantastic effect that it doesn’t get old when the song repeats it a few more times, coming back from quieter sections with that same infectious vigor. This energy is carried over into the second track, which hits the ground running with a guitar solo so flamboyant that it seems outright manic over the calm, steady beat in the background. Soon enough, however, the song calms down to make way for rudimentary robotic vocals—a nice callback to previous tracks like “Ausgesetzt” from the debut—before ascending into thick psychedelia where guitar and synths meld until it’s unclear what’s what.
After “The Variac” gives us a bit of a breather where the guitar shows off its subdued side, “Fore” offers some surprises while still keeping up the band’s formula. An electronica-heavy intro full of backmasking effects and an almost-breakbeat gives way to more of that wonderfully jangly riffing, which in turn gives way to what may or may not be an electric slide guitar before all three elements mingle in the second half of the song.
At this point, we’re deep in outer space, not just musically, but conceptually; the naming convention of the four central songs hints at a thematic connection revolving around the final frontier. After plenty of awesomeness, the darkness of space finally makes itself felt in “Systemic Failure (Uprising, Destruction, and the Escape).” The band already dealt with a robot revolt in the impossibly titled “This Is Where the Robot Escapes His Evil Captor, Finds Raygun, Plots Revenge” from the sophomore, but none of that track’s lighthearted quirkiness is to be found here. An already ominous atmosphere is pulled down further by an abrupt turn into the gnarliest sludge, relegated to a brief section at first, but ultimately returning to establish its rule for good. It’s unprecedentedly dark, but fittingly prepares us for the almost post-apocalyptic closer.
But before talking about “Between Trains,” we need to come back to the album’s history. Some of the material on Grade A Gray Day actually dates back a couple of years, but in 2019, while the making of the album was in full swing, the band lost its driving force when Phil Durr passed away. A couple of years later, the Sutton brothers and Hoegemeyer decided to finish the record as a final testament to their bandmate. A whole host of musicians from the Detroit scene came to their aid, all friends and collaborators from various other projects, including Mike Dancey doing the cover art—as it turns out, the very artist that created the painting of the eponymous Giant Brain all those years ago.
Guitarists can also be found among the roster of guests, so it’s never entirely clear whose hands we’re hearing throughout the record, but for “Between Trains,” no guitarist except Durr is credited. It does feature a guest performance, though. Over a simple, naked chord progression and a soundscape evoking both the titular vehicles and a ticking clock, vocalist Sue Lott provides the only instance of real lyrics, mourning moments big and small shared with her departed friend, all too aware that they will never happen again. The second half of the song then clears the stage for a final performance by Durr, and never is his absence felt more acutely, making for a devastating finale to a tumultuous record.
I came away from Grade A Gray Day feeling sad and elated; sad that the project was forced to end on this note, yet elated that it did so in a manner that feels respectful and befitting, and hopefully helped everyone involved process their grief. Sad, too, that my own little story with this band has ended, but elated that I got to hear them one more time and that, in a way, it has come full circle, beginning and ending with musicians paying tribute to other musicians.
Giant Brain’s final album is available through Small Stone Records digitally and on vinyl.
To get the vinyl in the EU, go directly to Kozmik Artifactz.