Gravity Machine is a new band (perhaps project is a better term), and when I began listening to their debut album, Red, I really had no idea what to expect. Jason listed it as “alternative rock” on the spreadsheet, which could mean pretty much anything that falls under the general category of “rock.” I recognized neither member. However, it was named Red, and as King Crimson’s album of that name is one of my top five albums of all time by any artist and Taylor Swift’s album of that name features the late Bill Rieflin, I decided the title, while unoriginal, was one of good omen. I’m pleased to say that, while not on the level of King Crimson’s Red (and what albums are?), Gravity Machine’s Red exceeded my expectations and earned a prominent place in my expansive digital record collection.
Gravity Machine is composed of Niall Parker and Bob Shoesmith. Parker is clearly the brain behind Red, as he wrote the songs, sang, and played nearly every instrument. Primarily a guitarist, his work on this album is fantastic. He also has a powerful, gritty voice that reminds me of a cross between Kurt Cobain and Peter Gabriel, if you can picture that. However, this is no one-man band: many of the songs are made by Shoesmith’s drums. He’s no Bill Bruford in the technique department, but his beats are incredibly solid and often call the listener to reach for the imaginary drumsticks. At the core of every Gravity Machine song is a heartfelt lyric and melody by Parker and a powerful, catchy groove by Shoesmith. They make a fantastic team.
Following the death of Niall’s wife in 2016, he wrote a great deal of music. He says it started as a coping mechanism and became something more. This album is actually three years in the making (pre-production began in 2017). The finished product did not come easily by any means: Parker had to make several difficult artistic decisions in order to avoid various creative pitfalls. The result is an intelligent and lucid album of which Parker and Shoesmith ought to be extremely proud.
Now that we’ve dealt with the backstory, the production, and the men behind Red, we have a very important question to answer: what does Gravity Machine sound like? The question is as difficult as it is important. Parker cites Neil Peart, Peter Gabriel, Radiohead, and My Bloody Valentine (!) as creative influences. The album is probably not as proggy as most of what we cover here: there are no classically-influenced keyboard interludes, no assaults of sonic guitar improvisation, no multi-part, ten-minute-plus songs (in fact, the longest song on the record is six minutes and twenty-one seconds, and it’s the only one to crack minute six). Nonetheless, the songs are well-written, well-made, and sure to please any prog fan.
Stylistically, alternative rock influences are definitely audible in the guitar tone and vocal style. The songs are concise and radio-friendly, often with strong emotional overtones. Folk music is also an important ingredient. Add in beats that range from world music to jazz to straightforward hard rock, and you have something of an idea of what Gravity Machine sounds like. However, that’s still not a very good description. They just have their own vibe. Once you’ve heard them, you’ll understand.
“It’s Summer” is the opening track, and begins with a West African drum beat and a killer melodic fretless bass line. These continue while Niall begins to sing, and they (surprisingly) don’t distract from the melody and lyrics. The ability to create interesting accompaniment parts while still adhering to a cohesive idea is a rare skill! The melody soon shifts to a bridge with a lot of heavy distortion. A consistent, dance-able beat ties the song together. Next is “She’s Calling Me Home,” a more melancholy song in a minor key. It begins with a mournful acoustic guitar riff before adding a plodding bass drum and one of the catchier, simpler melodies on the record. The minor key used sounds kind of…desert-like? I don’t know; it reminds me of a desert. The song gradually builds and climaxes with a very cool drumbeat before falling back on the original riff. “Red’s Song” could be subtitled “And Now For Something Completely Different.” It’s a gentle acoustic instrumental based on an infectious guitar melody and lasting no more than two minutes. Yes’ “The Clap” and “Mood For A Day” come to mind.
Next is “Dreamtime,” which opens with trippy synthesizer waves. A drumbeat introduces the real beginning of the song. The bass line is my favorite part! It interlocks perfectly with the melody. Parker isn’t being entirely fair to himself when he claims he’s primarily a guitarist and bassist. No album I’ve reviewed in 2020 thus far has had such superb bass playing. The verses and refrain of “Dreamtime” do indeed have a dreamlike quality. Shoesmith plays a bit behind the beat, making the song sound thicker and more trance-like. However, there are a couple brief instrumental breakdowns in which he switches to half-time and the other instruments become more energetic. While not my favorite track on Red, it may well be the best-made. “In The Depths” begins again with Shoesmith’s drums, playing a slightly-swung hi-hat groove that sounds rather ominous with the minor, quarter-not melody. Parker’s guitar work here consists mostly of bluesy lead lines and seems inspired by David Gilmour. About halfway through, he begins singing an octave higher, making the music more poignant.
“Standing Stones” might be my favorite track from Red—it’s on the shortlist, anyway. It has a harder rock feel and one of the best melodies on the album. The guitar riff is amazing! The subtle addition of the Mellotron near the one-minute mark is a brilliant idea and one of the best moments on the album. We soon hear an atmospheric section featuring a very cool tom groove, followed by an economical guitar solo—a rarity on a highly premeditated album. This one is going on my regular rotation. “Time Cut Short The Dance” has a groovy, 80s pop feel and (as usual) a great bass line. Parker cites Tony Levin as a favorite bassist of his, and his use of space and counterpoint evokes everyone’s favorite mustachioed low-ender. The slight use of bends and dissonance on this track is a nice touch. (I would say it goes on just a bit too long, however.)
Speaking of dissonance, “Pharmacopoiea” is almost uncomfortable in this respect. Parker describes it as “a musical representation of chemotherapy.” There is no melody and little structure. The percussion persists throughout as the guitars and synthesizers disagree with each other in a manner that sounds almost passive-aggressive. Suddenly, it cuts off. Most transitions on Red are smooth, almost Floydian, but “Pharmacopoiea” has a surprise ending. This is good songwriting. However, it is a difficult listen and (intentionally) aesthetically unpleasant, and I am not yet sure how I feel about it. But I do feel something about it.
“Lifting Mountains” is another minor-key hard rock piece, and features a grinding guitar riff. The bass, also, sounds different; I believe there is a guest bassist on this one. “The Empty Quarter” begins with one of the catchiest, most melodic new riffs I’ve heard in a while and a drum fill that Phil Collins would be proud of. It also has Niall’s best vocal performance of the album, confronting the upper limits of his range. You get the impression that he’s incredible in concert, even though Gravity Machine is not a concert band. The album closes with “Nightfall.” The longest track on Red begins with huge washes of synthesizer and a vocal introduction by Parker. The sound of this intro is very “solitary,” if that makes any sense (I use some weird adjectives for music). Over two minutes pass before Shoesmith enters the picture, uncharacteristic for a Gravity Machine song. At this juncture the aesthetic completely changes with rapid-fire sixteenth notes on the drums and a frantic bassline. The feel of this one, oddly enough, reminds me of the first track. (Is that intentional?) Appropriately, it then becomes solitary and melancholy again, slowly becoming softer as the record comes to an end.
I did not like Red the first time I listened to it. There are so many things here I have mixed views on, like the gratuitous atmospheric bits at the beginning of each song and the dense walls of synthesizer that persist throughout. (I would have liked to hear more guitar; Niall’s riffs were really well-written!) Such things are not to my taste—but they work so well here. They have made many decisions that I would not have made, but none that I can honestly fault, and the music is extremely enjoyable throughout. My rating has swung up and down so much since I started listening to this album, but objectively, Gravity Machine has earned a ten. Patience and hard work pay off in music, and I think I’ve stumbled upon something quite fantastic here.
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