by Caleb Oldham
Gretchen is a trio whose music is situated within the context of a vibrant art/noise surf rock scene in Calgary. Their most recent release, Oblique Contours, is an album obsessed with the present moment. Not our current socio-political climate, but a sense of “nowness” that needs to express itself with a violent urgency. There are no slow crescendos on this EP — tension does not build and release, rather, it explodes in exclamation points jutting out of a fluid, amorphous rhythm section. It’s as if this album wants to overcome the passing of time, pin it down and declare “Right now... Right NOW... RIGHT NOW!” What’s left are jagged edges that gash holes and fill them with a drone of cymbals and surf. “Experimental” can be a dismissive term used to describe that which is conceptually interesting but ultimately unlistenable. Gretchen’s talent resides in their determination to disfigure and darken what are essentially catchy, highly-accessible pop songs.
The frontman's vocals are obscured by the instrumentation, his voice low and far away and sounding like guilt, or a finger pointed at the listener. When he blames himself, confessing that it brings him “no joy to see you smiling” on “Cantabile,” the words are hard to discern behind a floating, reverb-tinged guitar. This method of mixing, favoring an angular guitar line over the vocal track, creates a struggle that is at the core of Gretchen’s sound. Traditionally, the guitar is on the offensive, expressing confident triumph through solo, or a sense of destructive joy à la Jimi Hendrix or Kurt Cobain (picture fire and wire cutters). In Oblique Contours, the guitar is not a release, it’s protection — an expression of despair and unease. Gretchen doesn’t destroy their instruments, they cling to them, closing their eyes and strumming furiously because it’s the only shield they have.
Any review about a band like Gretchen, and some of the bands from their label Egg Paper Factory for that matter, would be incomplete without an acknowledgement of the influence of the Calgary group Women, who’s sonic footprint still looms large in the city of 1.2 million. What differentiates this EP from any Women release, however, is not the erratic doom, interspliced with moments of distorted 60’s pop, that characterizes both bands, but the deep alienation that Gretchen’s music evokes. The distant voice, piercing riffs, and omnipresence of crashing bronze are all what make this recording more than just a great listen — they turn it into the sheer articulation of postmodern anxiety.
Gretchen's Oblique Contours was released June 23 on Egg Paper Factory. It can be streamed and downloaded at their Bandcamp.