Reviews by Dawoud Kringle
In 2014, I reviewed GREX’ live performance at Spectrum NYC. I recall their performance to be unique, adventurous, and utterly fascinating. In the course of my research, I learned that “grex” is a biological term for an entity composed of several smaller organisms. So I had to wonder what kind of music awaited me in their studio work.
GREX, an art rock/experimental music duo based out of Oakland, California consists of Karl Evangelista (guitar, voice, drums, samples, etc.), and Rei Scampavia (synth, voice, drums, etc.). They performed at festivals and venues such as The Great American Music Hall, Slim’s in San Francisco, Myra Melford’s New Frequnices Festival, The Switchboard Music Festival, The Sonic Circuits Festival (Washington DC), and the United States of Asian America Festival.
They organized two Lockdown Festivals in the midst of the 2020 coronavirus quarantine. They worked with Fred Frith, Tony Levin (Stick Men), Marshall Trammell (Black Spirituals), Scott Amendola (Nels Cline, TJ Kirk), and Asian Improv aRts. Evangelista also does improvisational guitar work with Louis Moholo-Moholo, Oliver Lake, Ben Goldberg, Alexander Hawkins, and Trevor Watts. He recently joined MFM.
Everything You Said Was Wrong (available on CD, vinyl, and digital download) promised a different perspective on Grex’ music.
“The Other Mouses” is driven by an insistent electronic drum beat in a weird time signature with driving power chords. Scampavia’s vocals completed an overall sound reminiscent of electronic punk, but with a different twist that brought the older genre to a place it had never been. Evangelista’s free jazz / Sonny Sharrock-esque guitar solo at the end was impressive, and relentlessly brutal.
“Blood” starts with a deceptively gentle sleigh bell sound, which gives way to the jagged rhythms GREX is obviously comfortable with. Evangelista spits his angst infused spoken word poetry over this sonic foundation. His guitar solo mirrored the mood of the lyrics. Scampavia came in with a spoken word with lyrics that are as incendiary as Evangelista’s yet delivered in a gentle and feminine manner.
“Criminal” begins with a noise pad that causes one to brace oneself in anticipation. A stark, desolate drum beat with a heavily gated (and slightly out of phase) snare and indistinct pad propels Evangelista’s lyrics into a disturbing confrontation against authoritarian rulers.
“Moon Baby” starts with an idiosyncratic drum pattern and understated guitar and bass. . Scampavia’s vocals come in like a melodic entreaty. This song is less avant garde than most of their work, and has an unmistakable psychedelic flavor to it.
It’s very clear that the duo is adamantly intent upon speaking out against the social horrors and political obscenities of our society. The videos of these songs add a complimentary dimension to this. And while, like with “Moon Baby,” there are noticeable stylistic roots in earlier genres, it’s obvious that the music on Everything You Said Was Wrong is a product of our Trump-era, pandemic ridden, economically uncertain, politically volatile times.
GREX also has a digital release (recorded in 2017) of their interpretation of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.
“Acknowledgement” starts with guest drummer Robert Lopez providing a free-form percussion backdrop over Evangelista’s E major rubato. Then Scampavia’s keyboards and Lopez’ drums play slice-&-dice with an F minor pattern that deviates pretty far from the bass ostinato of the original. Evangelista and Dan Clucas (on cornet) solo over this.
Haunting bass guitar chords open “Resolution.” Evangelista’s heavily harmonized guitar dances freely over the staggered patterns of the chords.
“Pursuance / Psalm” begins with an almost understated drum solo. Then it does the impossible: it turns a John Coltrane composition into a punk song. The punk form, however, disintegrates, and then reassembles itself into a spacy guitar meditation, before the punk form reasserts itself. It dies again, and then ends with Evangelista and Clucas having a mournful, almost painfully introspective conversation.
This will doubtless raise a few eyebrows, because in the jazz world, A Love Supreme is sacred. But this Evangelista / GREX foray is not only inventive and well executed, but is probably the most original, and I dare say, iconoclastic, interpretation of the Coltrane masterpiece.
It recently occurred to me that some of the most influential rock music came from the more obscure bands. A few examples were the Velvet Underground, Vanilla Fudge, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Country Joe and the Fish. Then there were the punk bands such as Iggy and the Stooges, Romeo Void, The Joe Carrol Band, etc. These were niche bands with a specialized audience. Yet their influence crept into the most unlikely places, and spread virally into music we now accept as mainstream. GREX impresses me as such a band. Their music and video performances contain a potential of influence that may crop up in the most unexpected places.