Oxford’s most restless sons, Ryan (guitars) and Elliot Cole (drums) of both Desert Storm and Wall, return to their collaboration with former Mother Corona members and fellow notable rock residents of the City of Dreaming Spires Rob Glenn (bass), Lee Cressey (guitar) and Dave-O (vocals), for the grunge, stoner, doom and space rock melting pot of styles that is The Grand Mal.
Having grabbed people’s attention and critical acclaim with their 2019 APF Records debut they have, despite the duties of other bands and a global pandemic, managed to cram in a ten-date headline tour and several high profile support slots. Now with what feels like barely a pause for breath, they have more delights in the shape of their sophomore album to try and recapture the magical surprise of their Self-Titled release.
Despite jamming the band since about 2015, The Grand Mal felt like a curiosity project, but make no mistake, a very good one at that, like I stated in my review three years ago, but now they’ve had the chance to really stake out an identity and a feel of who they really want to be, and the result is their second eponymous album (or II/2 for streaming sites and avoidance of confusion).
There is always a temptation with press releases from PR to state that the album is ‘the most heavy’ or ‘the most melodic’ or some cliché to show that the band have really turned it up to 11 this time. In the case of The Grand Mal, II finds them a more mature prospect, a more self-assured entity that are not afraid to shift their core sound and add new layers to their sonic palette.
After the vertigo inducing sci-fi sounds of the Another Replicant intro, The Grand Mal waste little time reintroducing themselves as they barrel into the frenetic squall of Petit Mal. Funky and chugging, Dave-O spits lyrics with machine gun like speed and the band capture a stoner retro vibe and execute it at Motörhead like pace.
The change in sound is subtle, but noticeable immediately. Slightly moodier and thicker, the band embrace a more classic rock vibe that takes in influences that cover a range from Sabotage era Black Sabbath, flashes of Hendrix like funk and Thin Lizzy driving rock to name but a few. All of this collides with the slightly off kilter vocal harmonies to create a more considered offering that swaggers with self-belief and confidence.
Second track proper, Shallow, feels like a call back to the opening track Explode from their debut, but instead of looking to fight you in a darkened alleyway, the pounding verses bristle with menace before breaking out into a head banging, swaying rocker with Dave-O soaring over the top.
The band come back to this smoky low key vibe time and again without falling into mindless repetition. I Live For Today, a huge standout on the album, starts off with an urgent understated verse that introduces a tambourine and a loud quiet dynamic. This allows the final mantra of the title to be given all the hooks and emphasis they can muster to generate another bona fide earworm.
the chemistry between all the members is relaxed and flows with a natural flair, making their music infectious and vibrant…
First single, and The Sleeping Shaman premier track, Rule My Soul, is awash with keys and multi-layered sounds as it slinks along, almost ballad like, in a rich blues plod and catchy introspective chorus asking, ‘where did it all go wrong?’ as they cut lose with that rich, southern influenced, instrumental turn they blueprinted on the first release, before heading on into the low-end heavy Smash The Grave.
Working in glorious unison, the rhythm section of Rob and Elliot constantly push the band forward, whether opting for simple sounding workouts, or technical flourishes that highlight their own skills, adds to the sound, rather than stepping on the moments when Lee and Ryan show off their six-string dexterity. Whilst the first album was no slouch in this department, here it feels like the whole band have upped their game.
The second half of the album is punctuated by two short instrumental passages that serve as bridges to more intense tracks. Lost In Time, with touches of mellotron, is tender and acoustic, almost ethereal before the battering charge of Hellbound Blues which features another huge, effect heavy, punishing chorus, while the ultra-seventies penultimate track, Empire Of Vultures, feels like a shimmering drug trip, lit by the light of lava lamps.
The Lingering is a light and breezy full-length instrumental featuring loops, samples and handclaps handled by producer Jimmy Hetherington (who also contributes the aforementioned mellotron as well as lap steel on Rule My Soul). Almost Hawaiian surf pop, it lends to an almost surreal drifting segue before the full blooded and defiant Seas Of Glory.
Once again, the band return to the seemingly effortless funk of earlier tracks; hip shaking riffing and accented pull offs make this a danceable affair. The muscular drumming and retro feel combined with the Ozzy-tinged vocals never let the energy drop.
The final number, the acoustic mellow vibes of Blood Moon ends the album on a chilled out southern country flavour. Drawing a cryptic lyrical veil over the proceedings, the lush strumming flows as it toys with an early nineties alternative sound that could have found a home on a Jane’s Addiction or Blind Melon album.
The common thread that links The Grand Mal’s debut to their second album is that the band sounds like they are having fun and it reflects in the music they make. Once again, the chemistry between all the members is relaxed and flows with a natural flair, making their music infectious and vibrant.
Less directly bullish than their previous outing, they have expanded on their sound to create a greater range of light and shade, making the all-round experience that much more satisfying and cementing them as not just a Desert Strom off shoot.
Scribed by: Mark Hunt-Bryden