Six years is long for a band to wait before releasing a debut album. It has been this long, in calendar years anyway, since GREY STAG formed in Dublin in 2017. Their long-awaited first full-length effort, Call of the Mountain is released on March 17th 2023. The obvious question is, “Was it worth the wait?”. But when presented like this it makes it seem as though the band and their fans have just been sitting thumb-twiddling for over half a decade, when the very opposite is the case.
The band, then consisting of Matt Geoghegan on vocals/bass, Steve Walsh on guitar, and Matthew McKenna on drums, immediately dropped a demo after forming and began playing their local scene, including BLOODSTOCK’s Metal to the Masses competition. From here they started to gain traction which increased drastically with the release of The Guide in 2018. A twenty-minute progressive sludge EP, it showcased their propensity for writing hefty, rolling, groove-heavy riffs with a few time changes and unexpected twists and turns thrown in for good measure, topped off with monstrous vocals that flick between death growls and melodic grit. Their musical, songwriting, and vocal style drew immediate and unavoidable comparisons to MASTODON. There are certainly worse bands to be compared to.
They played many gigs off the back of The Guide, including ventures outside of Dublin, and in 2019 their accomplished follow-up The Boats was released. A magnificent EP, it kept everything good about The Guide but bolstered it with more confidence in writing, playing, vocal delivery, and lyrical depth. After this, even the world shutting down wasn’t able to stop them, as they released Cyclopean in 2020 as part of a four-way split titled Doomed Congregation, and in 2021 they were hand-selected by Simon Hall to represent Ireland and play BLOODSTOCK as the de facto winners of the 2020 competition. 2022 saw them play more gigs, unfortunately, lose their drummer but find a replacement in SVET KANT’s Darragh Kenny, and of course, complete the writing and recording sessions for Call of the Mountain.
So, back to the question “Was it worth the wait?” You could say that there was no wait, as such, when all the above is taken into consideration, as the band have unceasingly delivered in terms of releases and gigs over the years. You could also say: yes. Very much so.
Aptly titled, the album is huge, both in sound and in scope. A seismic collection of songs bookended by ethereal guitar compositions, make no bones about it; this is a serious album. It is serious both in the sense that it is a force to be reckoned with and contemplative and profound, filled to the brim with an emotional weight that matches and sometimes surpasses the sheer mass of the music itself. This is all nicely contrasted against the fact that the band describe themselves as a sociopathic groove tyrant and are known for their memes and online humour. It’s all about that balance, eh?
And speaking of balance, the album sounds incredible and is exceptionally well mixed. Every musical component is distinct, with nothing being buried underneath anything else, unless intentional, such as the few subtleties at play regarding things like backing vocals. The guitars and main vocals are both brought front and centre in the mix which makes sense, considering previous releases have shown that both these elements are equally the ‘voice’ of the band’s songs. The bass provides solid accompaniment to the riffs while enjoying the occasional punchy jaunt of its own, and the drums bring everything together very well, usually in a supportive and foundational role, matching the energy of the strings or emphasising them by playing at half-speed, but now and again the drums lead the charge and inject a renewed sense of urgency and immediacy into some of the more frenetic passages. Each instrument sounds fantastic, with the guitar and vocals being particularly impressive in their tone and expression. This is all of no surprise considering the band have had a long time to hone their sound, as well as the fact that they worked with Aidan Cunningham to record, master, and mix the album. Having previously worked with southern legends BAILER and WORN OUT, as well as friends of the band AXECATCHER, and even fucking WHEATUS of all bands, the trio were in safe hands during the recording sessions as they perfected their abrasive, gritty, melodic sound.
The aforementioned guitar compositions that open and close proceedings are titled Breith and Bás, as Gaeilge. Translated to English they mean Birth and Death, respectively. Together, they are emblematic of transience, of change. And what is life if not change? Considering this, along with the album’s lyrical content, it could be safe to assume that it’s an examination of life and the varied and constant struggle that comes with it. There are songs that are fueled by the existential hole inside of everyone, that pesky little thing that usually begins when expectation and hope collide with reality. There are passages exploring the gulf that lies between people and the dangers that can beleaguer an isolated mind. All the while there is a sense of strafing the ever-present danger of being pulled underneath the tide, of succumbing. The lyrics are extremely introspective, and are quite simply some of the angstiest words ever put to music: the very first line of the whole thing is “I can feel the end”, afterall.
The words are one thing, but it’s Matt’s ability to express and convey the various intense emotions underpinning them that really gets the point across. His vocal delivery is nothing short of astounding. He has an effective death-growl style that isn’t too over the top but is still foreboding, but it is his gritty ‘cleans’ that are an absolute highlight on the record. Equal parts venom and sorrow, like a wounded monster wading in a deep well of furious anguish, he is simultaneously able to sing-shout in a way that carries great pain while also barbing it, perhaps protecting it, in aggression and provocation.
The choruses of These Seas are Deep and This Mountain Moves are perhaps the best examples of this. The former is especially impressive considering how well the vocal works in tandem with the music. The strings come in with galloping triplets, but instead of being arranged in neat rows, there is a sharp staccato note from the end of one set into the start of the next. The result is a sort of choppy effect that, whether intentional or not, mimics the serrated sinuousness of turbulent ocean waves, over which the vocals feel like a ship trying to ride the storm, trying to survive, while also giving out a warning: “‘these seas are deep’. Be careful where you wade, come any closer and you’ll get sucked into the vortex too.”
Out of the sea comes the Steadfast Leviathan, the single released in conjunction with the announcement of the album. Launched with a fantastic video shot on a freakin’ mountain by COSMOPALACE, the song is an energetic beast roaming in multiple directions, layering riff upon riff while taking twists, turns and dives into unexpected territory, including perhaps the band’s most Mastodon-esque moment to date. Using it as the single was an inspired choice, but technically it wasn’t the first single to be released. Although it has since been removed from Spotify and Bandcamp, perhaps indicating a premature conception, 2021’s The Adversary is included on Call of the Mountain. An excellent song that flits between slow heft and sprawling groove, it certainly fits well with the other tracks, thematically and musically, but this doesn’t negate the notion that it might not be entirely necessary.
There’s a lot going on in the album. There’s the heaviness of the music and the weight of the themes explored in the lyrics, as well as the progressive, sometimes labyrinthine structure of the songs. You’d need a calculator to work out the amount of riffs involved, too. All of this is well and good, but there is a genuine sense of fatigue and overwhelm that a release of this stature can bring, especially on first listen. The mountain can feel like a solid whole, its sections not yet broken down, its nooks and crevices not yet revealed. An unforgiving climb. Doubly so in the current realm of shortened attention spans and limited free time, the album’s magnitude might make it difficult for some to reach its summit, at least in one sitting anyway. This is a shame, since repeated listens are immediately rewarding, as light is shed on its subtleties and nuances, and songs are more easily distinguished. Keeping The Adversary as a separate single alongside making a few trims elsewhere (looking at you, the 40 second long outro to Steadfast Leviathan) could help alleviate this. But then again, how many people complain about having too much of a good thing?
Sandwiched between the two previously released singles is an absolutely sumptuous duo. Even though Trespasser starts off with a horribly overcompressed, over-crunched guitar that might only sound good to the ears of the deaf, the effect is quickly relinquished and the riff is re-played normally and with the backing of the rest of the band to add extra gusto, until another equally relentless riff joins the fore. Ladies and gentlemen, rejoice! For we have an instrumental on our hands. And it is an absolute neck.break.er. The two riffs swap in and out while refreshingly, it’s the drums that control the dynamics and tempo. After the trespassing comes Killing Monsters, a huge number that posits one of the album’s singular greatest moments, as well as one of the very few moments that don’t quite work. The song’s main vocal hook has Matt shouting six syllables in less than a second. While it’s technically impressive, it can’t help but sound a little forced. Good luck to him performing it live. Hopefully they do include the song on live sets though, as halfway through there’s a complete and total shift as they enter throwback territory: a wall of distortion fades into a clean, contemplative lone guitar pattern over which comes a guitar solo that genuinely sounds like it could have been an alternative take of the opening solo of METALLICA’s masterful Welcome Home (Sanitarium). Then out of fucking nowhere, the solo’s calm, brooding atmosphere is completely shattered by the sudden and absolutely bonkers arrival of a riff best described mathematically:
THIN LIZZY + BLUE ÖYSTER CULT x IRON MAIDEN.
Yep. Go listen for yourself if you’re in disbelief.
If one is indeed feeling a little fatigued by the time The Adversary is finished, it’s quickly blasted away by the militaristic ballistics of Make Their Victory Pyrrhic, an aggressive assault of a song that breaks into a really funky, upbeat NWOBHM-inflected galloping mid-section before returning to its war-torn roots. The contrast brought by moments like this against the heft is most welcome. Perhaps necessary. But it’s taken to the next level with No Stranger to Pain, a three minute pensive guitar journey, following which is Sunder, a fairly straight-forward, speedy slab of heft, like a brick through a window. There’s a nice bit of lone-bass riffing, an effective dynamic-drop halfway through, and plenty of headbangable riffs.
Then comes the penultimate track, This Mountain Moves, arguably in the running for best song of them all. Like These Seas Are Deep, it contains pretty much every musical element and component that makes the album so good. There’s light and shade; excellent control of dynamics; a mesmerising chorus; depressive but fairly relatable lyrics, in this case regarding the haunting quality of the past. There also may or may not be a false ending coming off the back of a passage too beautiful to be put to words. Hey, you’re the one reading this instead of listening to the album. Spoilers are on you and you alone…
Anyway. What happens after we die? Is death permanent nothingness? Forever? A certain someone disagrees: “Death is just another path…One that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass.” This is the sort of sentiment held by Bás, the grand finale. It is beautiful but also wistful, and carries with it a sense of transience, of moving on to something else, whether it be a higher state of awareness and consciousness, or life after death, or some unknown next step. It’s the perfect way to finish the album.
Tying everything together is the exceptional artwork produced by DABÚLGA DESIGN. Having done the band’s previous releases, it was a no-brainer for them to ask him to create the visual representation of the album’s themes and tones. It is simply stunning.
To conclude, Call of the Mountain is gargantuan. You could even say…mountainous.
Well worth the wait, even if at times it threatens to be buried under its own weight, these songs are going to be monumental live. If the band opt to and are physically able to play it live in its entirety from start-to-finish, it’ll be something else all-to-fucking-gether. The guitar tones are great, the riffs and rhythms are diverse, the drums add a mighty punch to the songs, the tonal shifts and dynamics are jaw-dropping in places, the lyrics are both powerful and vulnerable, and their delivery is at times astoundingly impressive. And oh, the heft. The heft, the heft, the heft.
Already a contender for album of the year, Call of the Mountain isn’t perfect.
But it’s very fucking close to it.
Call of the Mountain is released on March 17th.
Grey Stag launch the album in Belfast, Dublin, and Limerick on March 23rd, 24th, and 25th, respectively.
Review by Mark Russell: https://www.instagram.com/nativefear/
DABÚLGA DESIGN: https://www.instagram.com/dabulgadesign/
Aidan Cunningham: https://www.aidan-cunningham.com/