Album / Label: Are You Cool? EP / self-released
In a recent Music in Motion Columbus interview with GODRAYS, writer/mastermind Jone Ort gave readers an indication of what to expect from their next round of recorded work: “I think I finally found this sound that sits right in the middle of grunge and shoegaze […] it’s a dronier, more fuzzed-out sound than anything I’ve done. Slow guitars that kinda wash over you…” Ort also expressed that, while they were happy with the sounds and variety on past GODRAYS recordings, they wanted to make a more cohesive and less “scattershot” record going forward.
On their newest record, Are You Cool? EP, Ort more than meets these stated goals. Over the course of five songs, they redefine what it means to be GODRAYS, fulfilling all expectations while simultaneously annihilating them in a wave of fuzz and feedback. Ort’s songwriting is the most engaging and heart-in-throat it has ever been, and the music rises to meet them. Furthermore, the production – Ort’s first GODRAYS collaboration with longtime friend and confidant Stephen Troike – is crisp, clear and devastatingly direct. The result is a blending of all the GODRAYS sounds and styles of before into one cohesive, groundbreaking statement of intent, and a beautiful look into the unique perspective of one of Columbus’s finest songwriters.
It’s no exaggeration to say that these songs are walls of sound: massive, awe-inspiring slabs of distorted guitar tone and tightly wound songwriting. As Ort intended, the songs dwell in a heavy but lovely liminal space between shoegaze and grunge. They roll along at a mid-tempo pace, with shocking power and anxious ferocity. And, in true GODRAYS style, what really matters is the feeling: the sensation of being overcome by noise and emotion. Coupled with their introspective and often heart-rending lyrics about anxiety, the listener becomes the lump in Ort’s throat, and the music simply envelops and swallows.
With a deep breath, opener Amateur Chemist sets the mood instantly, languidly stirring to life. “Kratom and caffeine to get me straight / Amateur chemist keeps me sane” whispers Ort, softly but not timidly, as electric guitars chug around a drum-machine loop. The song builds in waves, ebbing and flowing, lulling the listener into a trance. The heaviness of the guitars is oddly soothing, almost like a weighted blanket, and the straight-faced emotional heft of the lyrics contrasts beautifully and powerfully with the music’s unhurried pace. Each change in tone – the brief pull-back of percussion, the crushing distortion of the song’s finale – serves to pull the listener in, totally and utterly, until they’re in the palm of Ort’s hand.
The title track Are You Cool? is the EP’s thesis statement. It feels a bit more brisk and upbeat musically, built upon the rhythmic interplay of the drum machine and the tremolo-suffused electric guitars. But this song, like the previous, is more emotionally charged than its music would suggest. Ort has been very vocal in the past about their struggles with anxiety, and thus turns this song into an examination of self and others. Although anxiety can be a source of fear and negativity, Ort seems to find some surprising positives in its scouring, cleansing nature: “Shut myself down ‘cause / I’m no longer sure of myself / And it feels beautiful.” This is a lot of nuance and conflicting emotion to pack into a rock song just shy of three minutes, but that’s GODRAYS for you.
EP centerpiece Deadbird is next, moving along at a glacial pace with crushing heaviness. Ort’s stark meditations on death swell and rattle along with the blown-out electric guitars. The percussion takes something of a backseat, as the riffs get heavier and denser, overwhelming the entire song like a mudslide. These simple, striking images of loss – the “dead bird flying out my window,” the “dead dog chasing cars forever” – are shocking in their potency and cutting to the core.
And that is precisely the reason that this new GODRAYS material feels so profoundly effective. Instead of observing Ort’s thoughts and emotions from a neutral perspective, the listener feels them in the music’s all-consuming heaviness and in the lyrics’ gnawing depth of feeling. This record, more than any other in Ort’s oeuvre, conveys what it feels like to be GODRAYS: to be nestled in the comforts of noise and feedback, consumed with inexpressible and overwhelming strata of emotion.
This strong theme of perspective and conveyance continues on the lead single Spaceship Crashing. It’s back to half-time guitars and a more relaxed tone, and Ort’s tender singing is suffused with just a touch of wry knowing: “Darkness coming for the polycule / Daylight savings got you feeling fucked up.” A synthesizer lead, highly welcome, emerges like a beam of sunlight through the trees (a godray, for that matter) about halfway through, as the song picks up in energy. Ort’s senses of timing, delivery and arrangement are impeccable, and carry the song to its conclusion in a well-paced but unhurried manner. This is a great choice for a lead single, and the best place for the uninitiated listener to acquaint themselves with the music of GODRAYS.
The first half of the final song, It Isn’t Him, sees Ort striking up a slightly-bluesy waltz and a clear-eyed, solemn meditation of a possibly allegorical man consumed by darkness: “He’s at your door / Banging on your windowsill screaming / He’s at your door / But it isn’t him anymore.” Although the exact meaning of Ort’s lyrics is clear only to them, the song itself is subsumed in meaning and intensity. In the song’s second half, the drum machine crashes in, and for the first time on the record, Ort’s vocal rises above a hushed whisper to become a howl. This moment of wounded catharsis rounds out the song, and the EP, quite nicely.
To conclude, I’d like to take a page out of Jone Ort’s book by being disarmingly direct myself: GODRAYS is the truth, and one of the finest rock bands in Columbus or anywhere.
This EP, an excellent rock record in a discography full of them, is Ort’s best work yet, and the perfect starting point to explore the other (very good) studio work. They’ve been honing their songwriting and vision for this project for some time now, and everything they’ve made has led them, and us, to this point. These are great songs that put me in an unusually specific place, musically and emotionally, and transport me away from the present moment each time I listen.
What’s more, I’m told by Ort that this EP is a trial run for their next full-length album. A trial run! These songs alone are a real accomplishment, but this statement suggests that whatever GODRAYS has planned for us next will be even better. I’ll believe it when I hear it.
For now, I’ll hit play, start from the top once again, and get lost in this beautiful, overgrown stretch of sounds.