I quite enjoy the fact that many artists exploring how to make a ‘big’ sound over the last decade or so have avoided the vacuous, pristine ‘bigness’ of 80s production. Of course, sure-fire markers such as spacious reverb have never left us but, by widening the range of sound sources, these artists can still attain epic grandeur while having timbral qualities that are actually interesting. Radiohead are the grand-daddies of this vein of exploration but, thankfully, there have been many in their wake who, while having some sonic similarities, focus more on taking up the exploratory nature of their work rather than specific style or sound. Graveyard Tapes, coming out of Scotland, definitely fall into this category – explorers of sound, within a vaguely ‘pop/rock’ format, whose resulting songs and textures give the listener much with which to engage and enjoy.
The stage is set from the outset in ‘Flicker’ – gentle clapping rhythms are reinforced by pounding floor tom interjections and flashes of pure white noise, all weaving their way around violin wails, synth washes and a hookline chorus. Rhythmic interest often comes from unusual places. For example, on ‘Sometimes The Sun Doesn’t Want To Be Photographed’, it sounds as though the pedals of a piano are being banged and looped to create the general pulse, which is doubled by stuttering electronic hi-hats and interjected by what sounds like a mosquito zapper, or some other electrical pulse, being triggered. None of this falls into a pounding rhythm, but the momentum is still taught and tense. Meanwhile, dark piano and subtle electronic bass pulses carry the harmonic structure for the chant-like vocal. Elsewhere across the album, rhythms are built from doorbells, rain sticks, electric screeches and other less recognisable but non-traditional sounds.
Every now and then, Graveyard Tapes do veer a little close to the precipice that drops into Radiohead pastiche, such as the vocal opening and minor key bass synth arpeggio of ‘Exit Ghosts’ but these moments are far outweighed by more distinctly individual explorations. So while the idea of tuned doorbell rings, rainstick washes and scratchy shufflings, as found in the interlude style track, ‘Dulcitone Grasses’, are relatively common in musique concréte recordings, it’s rare to hear such things played out so overtly on what is, at heart, rock music. Add to this lyrics of existential exploration, often with mildly religious undertones, and the cerebral pull of the music blurs into something with a much more emotional resonance than the simple exploration of sound might produce.
This push and pull is what ultimately makes White Rooms worthy listening. The tension between traditional melody and found sound based musical backing, which always threatens to open out into rock climax but, most satisfyingly, never does, is excellent. The minor key moods are held in place by unexpected noise and passages of minimalism. This is exemplified by the album’s central track, ‘Could You Really Kill?’, which builds on a rhythm of what can only be described as blasts of pure electricity, laying piano noodling and an insistent vocal melody. It sounds like it’s over after three and a half minutes, but the piano gently flits through the near silence, one note holding on to the embers of the track, until it is joined by exploratory rattlings around the innards of a piano, more electricity blasts, floor tom and spacious reverb for another few minutes. It’s as fine example of exactly what Graveyard Tapes do well.