On The Sound Gallery’s first album, 2004’s Designed for Reading, Herb Grimaud Jr. was joined by a number of collaborators that included members of The Autumns, Charity Empressa, and Glorybox. Which made sense, considering the wide array of sounds and styles that merged together on the album. Wisely, Grimaud’s follow-up album is a much more limited affair, with the only collaborator being Lorri Myers, who lends her voice on one of the album’s 3 tracks.
That’s right, 3 tracks spread out over 55 minutes. Which is why it’s a good thing that Phos is a more personal affair. Given the lengthy tracks, it could be easy for too many collaborators to muddle things up. However, with Grimaud handling the majority of the instrumentation and orchestration, primarily guitars, bass, and “treatments,” the result is much more focused, though it is certainly not concise.
Grimaud has expressed a fondness for the music of Lustmord — if one can indeed have a fondness for Lustmord — and Lustmord’s music is the most obvious touchstone here. We’re talking ambience of the darkest, most vast variety here. Whereas a lot of ambient music is intent on placating and comforting the listener, inspiring within them all manner of pleasant imagery — crystalline oceans, verdant fields, mist-enshrouded forests, and the like — the sort of ambience one finds on Phos is of a considerably more challenging sort.
Contrary to the album’s title, this is the sort of music that conjures up images of black holes rending apart the fabric of space and time, vast interstellar voids, galaxy-wide drifts of dark matter, and other cosmic phenomena that has the effect of making one feel rather insignificant the more you think about them. In other words, this might not be the sort of music you want playing while you meditate.
“Phos II” is a good example of this, beginning with a swirling mass of disembodied voices that are suddenly cut off by a dread inducing boom. Sure, it’s probably just the sound of Grimaud striking his guitar pickups amplified and distorted, but the sound of it instills an almost primal dread. One feels as if they’re listening to the collapse of a star, or a funeral bell signaling the galaxy’s demise. At the very least, there’s a solemnity about the way that gong-like pulse unrolls and unravels that causes the listener to stop and pay attention.
But the thing about Phos is that, for all of the vast, ominous drones that feel up the disc, there is something beautiful and haunting about it. Unlike Lustmord, who — let’s face it — sometimes uses sounds that are dark and spooky just to be dark and spooky, the music on Phos actually moves towards moments of haunting beauty. Sometimes it’s the way a soft, shimmery drone comes filtering through its darker neighbors, or how a sparse, evocative Vidna Obmana-esque piano melody hangs suspended in the angelic sounds, or in the uncanny resemblance that a vast array of drones can bear to a choir singing in some high, airy hall.
All of this comes together to create that most unique of sensations in the listener: awe. Not at the music itself, nor at the musician behind it, but at something else entirely. Knowing Grimaud’s spiritual leanings, this doesn’t surprise me one bit, nor should it. I’ve heard many Christian artists try to conjure up a sense of awe in their music, only to end up with something trite and cheesy.
They often resort to simple, clichéd lyrics — a problem that Grimaud doesn’t have here (the only vocals on the album are wordless, caught up in a sort of middle-eastern chant). Then there’s the music, which is often still too comforting and obvious to really put the listener in some place outside of himself or herself. Grimaud, in contrast, takes the listener through some truly dark, harrowing places in the music, music that leaves the listener trembling and haunted on the other side, and perhaps feeling just a bit smaller in the face of something greater.