As a general rule, a metal band that takes the decision to remain instrumental is more likely to be a proggy or mathy affair. When listening to them, it’s more common to find oneself swaying to twinkly explorations or twitching to movable-feast time signatures than outright headbanging. But rules are meant to be broken, and joining the relatively less-populated ranks of straightforwardly riffy vocal-free groups come The Grey. Hailing from Cambridge, one of the UK’s greenest, leafiest and most historic university cities. However, it seems that if The Grey’s music has been influenced by these quaint and picturesque surroundings, it has been to react against them rather than embrace them.
As an indication of their sound, The Grey first came to my attention as a hand-picked support act for Will Haven, when they came to London as part of their European tour in late 2018. To further stamp their approval on The Grey, Will Haven then invited them back to open the show for the duration of the string of UK dates they bolted on to their recent transatlantic hop to play Hellfest in June 2019. This is certainly not a common scenario, and a quick listen to the band’s self-titled debut EP, released last year, goes some way to explaining why they were singled out for this special treatment.
The EP features five sleek and streamlined tracks, broken up with a trio of shorter, more ambient interludes. The Grey resist the temptation for long, noodly adventures, keeping the average song length around the five minute mark. Naturally, Will Haven are a reasonable comparative touchstone for their weightier, grindier moments, along with earthtone9. They are mixed with the expansiveness of Russian Circles, and Isis-style dynamics, and presented in a no-nonsense fashion. Ultimately, The Grey sit at roughly the halfway point between Karma To Burn and Long Distance Calling, managing to find themselves a less populated quarter of what can be a crowded field.
Of course, a spectre which hangs over any instrumental band – especially one with a bare minimum of members who stick to relatively conventional song structures – is the persistent, nagging curiosity over what the band might sound like if they did have a vocalist in their ranks. Fortunately, the last track of the EP, “Better Off Dead” answers that question for us. The track is a collaboration between The Grey and Sacramento-based Horseneck, and in true Karma To Burn fashion, applies the layer of vocals to “Sols 2” which can be heard in its instrumental form earlier in the EP. The eagle-eyed amongst you may have also noted the geographical coincidence, and Horseneck feature members of the extended Will Haven family, which probably goes some way to explaining the superficially improbable connection between the two bands.
From my own experience, The Grey put on an engaging live show, and a deft use of effects and layers impressively fills out the sound – and the EP works particularly effectively as a gaming soundtrack. Well-balanced between atmospherics and satisfyingly meaty riffs, The Grey are a distinctive and pleasing proposition, and one worth keeping an eye on for the future.