Alt-rockers from across the pond, Grayscale demonstrate perfectly why it's always worth heading to a gig early to catch the support act.
The two Grayscale band shirts in my eye-line told me that this Philly foursome had got a whole lot bigger since I caught them on tour last year with pop-rock giants As It Is, and following the release of their joyous sophomore record, Nella Vita, it’s no surprise. Translating from Italian to ‘In Life’, the album is appropriately a compelling mediation on the highs and lows of human existence, and the band brought these ideas to life during their supporting slot with Real Friends at Nottingham’s Rescue Rooms. Soaring breakdowns were paired with mournful librettos to embody the chaos and pandemonium that is human experience, as well as a band who refuse to play by the rules.
The band first emerged in a sea of purple for the aptly named In Violet. With its themes of grief and bereavement, the song was not an obvious opening choice, but its contrasting spritely guitars and wistful lyrics demanded the crowd’s attention and set the tone for a show of many shades. Dream-pop influenced but yet never vapid, In Violet explored the classically sombre affair of death in a way that was instead both elated and rejoicing: ‘bury me in violet / smile for me when you set me free/ dance the pain away’. In its flickering between muted, reverbed vocals and dance-inflected hooks, the song echoed death’s many sides as well as the band’s own multifaceted sound. Both contemplative and cathartic, but with a mid-point dance drop that would’ve felt at home on a Bleachers record, the song refused to fit in a box – something which steadily became a metaphor for the band’s set.
'The song was not an obvious opening choice, but its contrasting spritely guitars and wistful lyrics demanded the crowd’s attention and set the tone for a show of many shades'.
Following the theme of colour, a teal hue shrouded the stage for Baby Blue. Labelled ‘a dancey one’, the track forwent the musing minor chords of In Violet for a surplus of twinkling synths and prismatic harmonies, and the energy shift was matched by the crowd who surged forward in a mass of eager bodies. A notable absence of a mic stand allowed lively frontman Collin Walsh free rein of the stage; brimming with youthful ardor, he pranced its width and depth to the song’s blissful disco-dashed riffs. The vehement crowd allowed him to take a backseat for the song’s fervent concluding minute which descended into euphoric chaos, and already sparkling with sweat, he gratefully obliged.
Densely layered and bubbling with spite was the band’s next offering, Palette. Primal yet polished, a hybrid of both pop-punk and electronic, and euphoric in a way that was somehow haunting, the song was the heaviest hit yet and ripped through the small venue like a hurricane. The first shattering chorus saw a small but ferocious sinkhole materialise in the centre of the crowd, and the band similarly reveled in this newfound intensity. Pounding drums embodied the dull ache of past romances and screeching riffs manifested the stabbing pain of love and loss, desperately urging listeners to dive into their pasts to connect with the lyrics and craft their own narratives.
Mum followed and forwent the romantic theme entirely for a mediation on families’ darkest parameters and the sobering realities of a mother’s drug addiction. A sleeper hit, the track hailed from the band’s deep-seated debut, and tackled its difficult topics with eloquence and honesty. The scorching lead guitar was spiked with woozy reverb and the rhythms were beefed up to Royal Blood levels of fuzz, but Walsh’s charismatic, East Coast twang brought the song back to earth and added that deeply personal Grayscale sheen.
'Grayscale’s diverseness of sound is at once their greatest triumph and torment'.
The blues-inspired, keys driven YOUNG came next and felt, at times, chaotic. Grayscale’s diverseness of sound is at once their greatest triumph and torment, and in this case, the song just seemed to be doing too many things at once. Flailing guitars fought for foreground whilst Walsh’s visceral vocals – which should have dominated the record – got lost in musical bedlam, meaning the song fell slightly short of the remarkable gaiety evoked by its recorded rendition. Visually, however, the song was delightfully cohesive, and beneath a pool of undulating crimson light Walsh bawled ‘my god, we're sick of seeing red’. Urgency-seeped both in lyric and sound, Painkiller Weather restored some of the gritty punk spirit that the set lost during YOUNG. Whilst there was still a tension between the spoken and the sonic, here it felt purposeful, symbolic of the conflict between love and addiction that the song so skillfully divulges. Nick Veno‘s swinging drum beats and Walsh‘s bright inflections were at odds with lyrics such as ‘I loved a girl named Madison / And she liked to do heroin’, but this only made them more prominent . It was here that Grayscale’s gift for delivering close-to-heart, introspective stories in a juxtaposing, lively fashion was on full joyous show.
Next up came air-tight late album groover In My Arms, which combined its sweet, oscillating synthesizers with a spit-polished riff to get the whole crowd in motion. Glossy, sweet, and reminiscent of early ’90s pop, the song pushed its synthetic elements to their max, and what were previously subtle electronics delicately sprinkled in the set’s background were pushed bravely to the front to form a unique infusion of electro and emo. Lead guitarist Andrew Kyne’s guitar was thinned-out and accompanied by a plethora of dazzling alt-pop synths, whilst Veno’s percussion relinquished its usual vigor in favour of a crisper, poppier finish.
The euphoria was short-lived though, and with the smooth reverberations of ‘make it alright, come save me tonight’ still in the air, the venue descended into darkness for the deeply affecting Old Friends. Through dusty guitars and sombre melodies, the song explored the feelings of grief surrounding the death of Walsh’s cousin who took his own life. Whilst the song lost a little of its bleak, dirgey beauty to an overly trebly mix, it was still a deeply rousing affair, and lyrics such as ‘no one knows the pain like you did/ I wish we could talk about it like old friends’ hung in the Nottingham air like a ghost. Together with its falling melody, Old Friends’ coda was one of the evening’s most stirring moments, and justified Grayscale’s position as one of the most multi-dimensional bands in the scene.
'The track’s less polished production saw its secrets revealed more slowly than the rest of the bill, building steadily until, aching with anticipation, the crowd were treated to a final chorus that went straight for the jugular'.
The penultimate Fever Dream began with a similar quiet intensity but, like the majority of Adornment (2017), descended steadily into a furious mass. A lyrical apex, the song combined coarse metaphors and visually-driven wordscapes to enact a chase between two dwindling lovers: ‘down cobblestone, I scream your name / I fight your past ‘cause you're never gonna feel the same’. Angelic refrains flecked with compositional flourishes maintained the wistful mise-en-scene created by its predecessor, but the song concealed a darker, bitter edge which created a bed for the set’s furious finisher to lie in.
Sun-flecked yet frenzied, Atlantic is still, in my opinion, Grayscale’s biggest and boldest offering to date. Although a lumbering behemoth of a song with cinematic soundscapes and jangly basslines, the song is, at its heart, a love story that explores the liminal space between devotion and obsession. The track’s less polished production saw its secrets revealed more slowly than the rest of the bill, building steadily until, aching with anticipation, the crowd were treated to a final chorus that went straight for the jugular and closed the set with furious flair.
With its incorporating of a wonderfully earnest, charming brand of songwriting that pulls on the threads of Mayday Parade and The Wonder Years, and a sense of melody rooted in early 2000’s pop-punk nostalgia, Grayscale’s set could double an instruction manual for aspiring pop-rock bands. Reveling in pop-punk spirit but with a spunky, electro edge, Grayscale reminded the crowd that life isn’t just one thing and neither are they, and in turn, had us forget that they weren’t the bill’s headliners.