Everything You Said Was Wrong
Grex are Karl Evangelista and M. Rei Scampavia. Karl is a California-based musician who has worked with Fred Frith, members of Tune-Yards and a host of others. His experimental musicianship has been hailed as ground-breaking by many and Signal to Noise magazine called him “one of the most original instrumentalists and composers of his generation”. He works from a background of free-jazz improvisation, with multiculturalism and protest as key themes in his work. Scampavia has a background as a biologist, which is the source of the band name Grex (an aggregate lifeform made of different cellular amoeba). Both are singers and multi-instrumentalists, generally Karl plays guitar and Scampavia keyboards.
Everything You Said Was Wrong is their full length-album – possibly their last – released on October 30th and it is extraordinary. An album of protest and frustration recorded earlier in the year and that has taken on what Karl describes as “unexpected relevance”. He is wrong: this album was always relevant. Although universal in context, the album is specifically about Oakland, where the band reside, a howl of anguish at a world too willing to accept turmoil but unwilling to change for the better, and a city which has seen damaging change and disaster. The title is from Star Wars and reflects the band’s admiration of Luke Skywalker for his transcendence in reflecting upon failure, in this case the band’s self-perceived failure to accomplish social change. With that in mind, Grex have said that proceeds from the album will as possible be directed to social causes.
Opener KD has Karl spitting venom about this “god-fearing nation” where “violence has its prevalence” to a free-jazz inspired beat and electric piano, setting a tone of attack which is maintained in the tone of the album throughout: there is atonality and dissonance, because from where they are standing, there is atonality and dissonance everywhere. The improvisation and musicianship therein is inspired, recalling similar grooves from Jon Spencer to Childish Gambino via Zorn and Miles. He is channelling Kevin Durant: an outspoken basketball player criticised and admired for his outspoken fire. This attack continues in other songs such as Blood: “How can there be overlords when everything is God?” could be about religion, could be about the church and state. The Other Mouses introduces Scampavia’s vocal, bringing to mind the confrontational yet laid-back style of St.Vincent’s Annie, (as does the fiery guitar) and the track features skittering electronica which adds a tonal variety. As in many of their songs, the rats of the lyrics represent those who are unwanted, on the outskirts of society. The couple also keep rats as pets, apparently. The quieter Beepocalypse has Scampavia waking with a head full of “dead bees”, a more conventional sound masking unconventional time changes and lyrics. “We’re all wasting time until the end of the world”, Scampavia apocalyptically and accurately concludes. I, for one, have taken up running. In circles.
Other songs on the album merge their vocals, swapping between them to contrast rough edges with beauty or provide elements of closure. Margot Tenenbaum seems almost call-and-response, Scampavia’s vocal recalling Neko Case’s work for The New Pornographers at times, with a similar vocal pacing, but paired with that jazz-inspired guitar riffing that sets it apart from other similar indie ventures. Walking Ayler in Tarzana has a gorgeous chiming guitar part opening into a slow instrumental piece, literally a walk through Tarzana (Los Angeles) with saxophonist Albert Ayler present in spirit for this tribute.
Criminal (there’s a video for this on YouTube) is about protest and political movement in the Philippines related to Karl’s own family and background. A rough squalling piece with Evangelista debating his identity, as solo guitar part races towards a showdown. “Who the fuck am I?” he asks, with the identity of criminal either imposed or self-identified, the resulting alienation is the same. Moon Baby is a gentler piece that is also about self-examination, breathy gothic vocals from Scampavia with the poignant, inexpressible nature of regret in the lyric “We didn’t know that you
were alive. We didn’t notice you growing inside. We fed you our darkness, our fears, and our pride. We tried to forget and we tried to survive”. If there is an access point required for this album, this song is certainly it, a beautifully realised song.
The album concludes with a trio of songs about the couple’s rats: Jin’s Run is playful and messy, launching into experimentation and amusement, a fairground keyboard sound behind improvised guitar. Feather Chaser is self-explanatory and uses “holding on” to something as a metaphor embedded in Scampavia’s vocal. Closing track Ikki has the pair singing together, and is a showcase for the avant-garde elements of their work as well as including an elegant guitar piece and being closer to their free-jazz origins.
With this album Grex are celebrating all of their influences, combining their loves and their current fears into something to fire at the world. At its best it is venomous and heart-breaking by turns. Whether it is as cohesive as an album as its individual tracks are is debateable, but this is that rare thing: an album which is experimental but accessible, fusing so many ideas and genres together that there really is something for everyone here. I’m glad it’s found me, and you will be too.
The digital and CD versions of the album include five further tracks, reworkings and additional material.