January 19, 2004

Grand Ulena "Gateway to Dignity"

Touted by the Flying Luttenbachers’ Weasel Walter as, “totally insane and frenzied hyper-math rock overload”, St. Louis instrumental trio Grand Ulena play a unique brand of complex, disorienting math rock not unlike the algebraic melodies explored by Hella, Ruins, or U.S. Maple. Comparisons- as they usually do- sell the group short, as capricious time changes, erratic starts-and-stops, deliciously angular guitar, dizzying basslines, and jazz-inflected blast beats temper the distinctive sound Grand Ulena brings to the table.

The most remarkable aspect of Grand Ulena’s music is how the group manages to forge an undeniably cohesive sound from the organized chaos. In other words, the effect of each member playing three distinctly different parts isn’t a disconnected jumble of various unrelated jingles and thuds, as one might expect, but rather a consistent, unified entity. Songs like “Crowbar at Crescent and Cricket” and “Grand Arsenal” illustrate Grand Ulena’s formidable skills as musicians (check out the awesome groove the band falls into around the 1:15 mark on “Crowbar…”), but the only qualm I have with the group is that it appears, at least on the surface, that their music is devoid of any feeling. What I mean is, the record feels at times like one giant showcase for the group’s chops. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, but issues such as these are more or less ubiquitous when discussing the exploits of many instrumental bands.

If there’s one track that I believe sums up the Grand Ulena sound, that track would have to be “Total Joplin”. Beginning with a single, fragmented, ominous burst, the group pauses for an extended moment to allow the sinister ambiance to linger. The track quickly launches into a staccato groove propelled by the frenetic drumming of Danny McClain. The trio promptly grows weary of the groove and sporadically instigates another one. Anchored by McClain and the nimble fingers of bassist (and former Dazzling Killmen member) Darin Gray, guitarist Chris Trull is left to his own devices, creating spastic, jagged bursts, often coming across like he’s trying to get answers from his instrument by pummeling it into submission.

Grand Ulena could best be likened to a large, anthropomorphized boulder tumbling down a steep hill, crushing everything in its path, pausing every so often to dwell on the carnage it’s wreaking. All in all, an impressive debut from a group that seems destined for big things in the experimental rock community.

--Jonathan Pfeffer

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