SULK – Graceless
aaamusic | On 16, Apr 2013
There are few pleasures quite like that found by a certain soul in the small hours listening to a wash of flanged guitar and sighing hooks. There may be greater pleasures, yes, but London-based SULK do occupy “that niche” with their album ‘Graceless’. However, if you’re looking for late-night melancholia, you may want to look elsewhere. These people may use the kind of guitar sound that feels like the tide is coming in, but they harness it to an upbeat, perhaps even giddy, sense of melody and an ear for a good hook.
Opening track ‘Sleeping Beauty’ kicks things off in a fairly predictable shoegaze manner, with slightly monotonous vocals, an atmospheric, effects-heavy guitar melody, and a punchy bass tone that plays a mesmeric, looping riff that helps anchor the dreamy, almost ethereal guitar tone and cymbal-and-snare reliant drumming. However, out of nowhere, from the downcast lyrics and forlorn melodies comes an uplifting chorus that sends the album spiralling off into another direction entirely, and the track ends with a building vocal croon and increasingly intense guitar attack, ending not with a sigh but a swoop of a final keening chord. ‘Flowers,’ with its uptempo pace and immediate leap into a crunchier, more distorted guitar sound transforms the swirling psychedelia hinted at in its predecessor into a full-on danceable cut. The lyrics would be fairly familiar to anyone of the psych band scene, however the tumbling, breathless delivery in the chorus, with double-tracked echoes and semi-harmonies and catchy descending melodies make it a surprising treat.
Unfortunately, ‘Diamond in Ashes’, while keeping up the atmospheric sounds and surprisingly accessible lovelorn lyrics and a sweet, trebly guitar high in the mix that hark back to an age of gritty powerpop, don’t quite move the album on melodically, despite a fairly inventive slotting-in of a solo. As for ‘Marian Shrine’, it merits another “unfortunately” from me. I want to like it. I really, really do. It’s got one hell of a danceable bassline to it and some pseudo-disco drumming that propel its keening guitars and great vocal line. However, it is so blatantly a Stone Roses/Suede homage that I can’t help but find myself humming the press release along to it. Yes, it is one great pop song, but the problem is, this is a 90s hit in a band that evidently want to push the sound beyond the sum of its influences, and for its bucketloads of appeal, I find the track oddly disappointing in this respect.
‘The Big Blue’, then, does provide a revitalising breath between these two that keeps my confidence in the album afloat. While remaining in a similar template to the two tracks before it both melodically and in terms of the sound, there is a marked shift towards a more melodically-focused ballad, using the sad pop song as its template, rather than relying on the obvious shoegaze tropes. Although the guitar retains a hazy quality and the vocals remain swathed in its own ghosts, the song derives its bittersweetness instead from its Ash-derived chorus melody and its lyrical yearnings and heartfelt delivery. The track culminates in a lilting and relatively clean-toned guitar outro that showcases the band’s ear for melody while allowing the cymbals and thick bass tone to wash hazily into the next track.
‘Back in Bloom’ is a touching track, using the dreamy, hypnotic guitar sound of the opening track to create the atmospheric groundwork for a song that truly builds in the most satisfying manner. The lyrics themselves create an optimistic tone that counters the melancholy hinted at earlier, and the instrumental builds and builds into a cascading yet euphoric guitar break. Serving as a counterpoint is the bassy ‘Wishes’, which tones down the chorus/delay and flange on the guitar to allow a jangling and relatively clean melody that is almost country in melodic shape to cut through, as the vocals deliver a pleasing veil of sunshine-tinged melody. The key change half-works, not quite providing the lift to the heavens it is aiming for, but hitting a smile-inducing jump in tone all the same. Again on ‘Down’, SULK refuse to use the obvious mumbling mournfulness and thick yet incomprehensible wash-of-lost-cassette-tape sound that downbeat shoegaze falls back on, instead using a ghostly fairground keyboard sound and a clean jangling guitar, and pushing the skeletal cymbal/snare drumming further up in the mix that creates an air of desolation to match the lyrics, and the final chorus of descending vocalisations and repeated lyrics works to really hit home the sorrowful tone of the track.
To follow with the almost obnoxiously upbeat and energetic ‘If You Wonder’ is a bit of a risk. On the one hand, it provides a good and healthy contrast, injecting the last wind of energy to propel the album to its end after a slow song, and this leads very well into a tasty yet simple guitar solo. However, the vocals, stripped of their shrould, come across as a little too nasally and obnoxious, and the lyrics seem a bit uninspired in their “three minute pop song about fancying someone” mode. Particularly given that the aptly-named closing number ‘End Time’ manages to mix a sparky, post-punk influenced tom roll/bassline verse with a haunting yet hook-filled wash of guitars and keyboards to accompany one of the finest cheerful-apocalypse choruses I’ve heard in some time. The structure itself, complete with wailing guitar solo, a brief drum break for the audience to clap in, and a final burst of the chorus is contrived, yes, but to be quite honest, this song manages to showcase all the band’s strength in one final and much-needed flourish, so the listener doesn’t mind.
Despite their roots in the sunshine and open air pop hits of the 60s and 90s, SULK’s Play Dead/Peter Hook-style bass and almost inescapably wistful vocal style places them in the camp of bands that need at least one play-through at 1 a.m. to fully appreciate ‘Graceless’. However, they are first and foremost a pop band, and they do much to push the haze and tidal swoops of shoegaze into a far more punchier style, and in the process drawing out and polishing the genre’s pop sensibilities. That said, ‘Graceless’ has its flaws, becoming formulaic in its insistence on the same repeated template of sound and melody. And at times, they can descend into sounding like a tribute to Suede and Stone Roses. But there is potential here for a good band. They have songwriting ability and clearly have a good idea of what they want their sound to achieve. With a bit of luck and some more work put in, SULK could diversify their sound and develop their own voice to create something potentially rather impressive.