The journey of The Boats begins immediately with single Skyburner’s short, rapid drum attack that paves the way for a head-crushing riff that propels the song forward. Out of the three tracks, ‘Skyburner’ shares most in common with Grey Stag’s previous release The Guide. It is absolutely relentless. The huge guitar riffs are bolstered by a thunderous rhythm section, which includes Gatt’s immensely satisfying drum fills. Recorded, mixed, and mastered at Trackmix Recording Studio, Michael Richards has done an immense job working with the band to get the best possible sound, which is evident immediately. There are zero reprieves until the song’s last note, the distorted feedback of which leads directly into middle track ‘Five Eyes’, in ways the polar opposite of ‘Skyburner’.
Out of the ashes emerges a slow, heavy bassline drenched in distortion that sets the pace and atmosphere for the rest of the release. Progressing as musicians and songwriters, Grey Stag understand just how impactful the less-is-more ethos can be when utilised in the right way, and by the time Matt balefully squalls about internal struggles and anxieties, the music has already channelled itself into pure sonic frustration. The tempo and initial sparseness of Eyes mean that almost counter-intuitively, it hits harder and is more intense than ‘Skyburner’. The restrained, effective guitar chords act as a voodoo doll, every snare hit a jabbing pin that forces necks to lash forward, only to lift back up and repeat, until the song is properly unleashed in a double-speed rolling groove that has to be heard to be believed. By the time Matt bellows the unforgettable chorus ‘I control, for the mind controls. For the Eyes control’, heads have been transformed into windmills.
Title track ‘The Boats’ is nothing short of astounding. Any song with a length of more than ten minutes is automatically on trial, accused of being bloated, excessive, self-indulgent, pretentious, and arduous. ‘The Boats’ unquestionably justifies its twelve-minute length. There is not a single note out of place. Perhaps unexpectedly, it opens calmly, with a brooding, solitary guitar riff devoid of the distortion found everywhere else. As Steve’s guitar continues to gently lilt, a subtle dimensionality is added by a well-placed cymbal tap and a bass rumble. The three instruments then intertwine and become a tapestry upon which Matt paints a depressive picture, using the expansiveness and depth of the ‘open sea’ to mirror internal struggles. His clean vocals are impressive, though short-lived. Slowly, with expert control and restraint, the band begin to gradually apply tension with each passing measure. Guitar distortion. Vocal strain. Heavier hits on the drums. This subtle build-up then gives way, drifting into silence. A monstrously dark, razor-sharp riff pierces the silence and so begins the mammoth, bestial body of the song. A leviathan of noise, the drums batter like waves against a ship in a storm, while the strings incessantly jump from riff to riff, merging heft with the melody in a rampage of destruction. The vocals rise above the hubris of the music like a monolithic demon spitting gravel, grit, and debris at all who dare come within range. At one point, ‘the pressure abates’ for a while; the storm breaks, and the clouds dissipate into a lonely drum pattern that begs the question of where the song will go next. The answer arrives in the form of a guitar solo that is the aural equivalent of a shooting star igniting a pitch-black, cloudless sky. A welcome return of clean vocals is again short-lived as calmness becomes a calamity. Layer upon layer of increasing intensity culminates in a cataclysmic cyclone, through which Matt philosophically growls about the nature of self-reflection, of existence, and of creation as a form of survival.
A grey, staggering emotional weight is felt in every second of all three songs of The Boats, through silence and noise alike, due in no small part to the record’s lyrics. Dealing primarily with the weight of existence, ‘the effort of life’, hopelessness, worthlessness, and loneliness, the lyrics, aided by astounding vocal delivery, convey struggle in a masterful way, conjuring vivid imagery of flesh and bone and dust, of blood and soul, of oceans that become deserts at the hands of time, and of everything that lies between darkness and ‘languishing light’. Lines such as ‘The air was there for you to breathe, but not for me’ bring to mind Ian Curtis’s reluctant observation that ‘People like you find it easy…walking on-air’ from Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’, while the sinking feeling of depression captured by the line ‘I fail all the time…follow slowly down, because of this curse my end is now’ shares introspection with Andrew Eldritch’s ‘I think I’m drowning, this sea is killing me’ from The Sisters of Mercy’s ‘Marian’.
Every single component of The Boats is exceptional, including the stunning artwork by Colin Bolger of Dabulga Design. To hear it live start to finish would be an experience, and it could easily fill wall to wall of an arena, possibly in support of an international act. For now, the album launch show on December 6th at Fred Zeppelins in Cork will have to suffice until Grey Stag announces more live dates in support of the E.P., but considering how they’re going from strength to strength, and eventual arena performance might not be out of the question.
Review // Mark Russell