While the untangling of duality -- awe and anguish, faith and fraud, hope and horror -- is hardly a new artistic exercise, such rich questioning is rarely attempted in the form of an entirely-accessible six song EP. Performing the duties of both architect and builder, Zach Gehring (of beloved Virginia-based Mae acclaim) has designed an exorcism vehicle, the aptly-titled moniker Demons, and allowed often-at-odds voices the opportunity to speak. The result is Great Dismal, an oxymoronic battle of declarations, withholdings, distortion, and clarity -- a tussle of the psyche examined through opposing dynamics.
Considering the past, present, and future success of Mae (four highly-revered full length records, three EP's, and over half a million records sold), it is fair to question Gehring's motives in pursuing a new project now. In his own words, "over the years it's just been a nagging desire. I'd dismiss it for periods of time, but then it would come back to me. I wanted to see if I could do it. I knew I had ideas and a desire to give some sort of voice to them, also, and most crucially, they were not ideas that could be developed in Mae," says Gehring. "I wanted to do something harder, less crafted, something more abrasive. Conceptually, or lyrically, I was more interested in problematizing myself and throwing tacks on the road, so to speak."
"Tacks on the road" becomes an increasingly appropriate metaphor as Great Dismal plays out. Moments of sonic accessibility lose footing and spiral into heavy and brooding responses with little warning, Gehring's fragile vocals transition into angst-ridden bellows, and words from the same speaker argue back and forth across the tracklisting:
"Some things are better left unsaid --left wild, violent, raging, deep inside your head" ("Lenora Slaughter") // "I pray to God, I won't do you no harm, and that you find rest in my helpless thin arms" ("Quietly Waiting")
Conceptually, "the name of the project, 'Demons,' comes from a Fyodor Dostoevsky novel of the same title," says Gehring, "although, my reason for going with that for the name is because I feel it's something we all have in common. Maybe not so necessarily sinister, but this alternate, more problematic or complicated portion of our personality -- a side people don't always like to recognize in themselves. The title Great Dismal is taken from a local swamp in southeast Virginia. I think it succinctly describes my worldview right now, kind of a combination of awe and anxiety. It's both expressive and reflective."
Decidedly heavier and more aggressive than previous projects, Demons took stylistic cues from the likes of many influential bands that have shaped Gehring as a musician. Traces of Spiritualized, Pedro The Lion, The Afghan Whigs, and Mudhoney can be found throughout Great Dismal; however, that list hardly registers as any type of "recommended if you like" touchstone. The strength of the EP is the sum of its inspired parts, not its function as a sonic homage or tribute.
"The main undercurrent was just a curiosity to see if I could do this. Demons is an experiment in a true sense of the word," say Gehring. "The music isn't experimental at all, but the process, me writing songs and singing, was always understood as an experiment. There are these narratives of creativity, art, and expression, and they are sometimes at odds with each other. I think everyone has something they want to express, and I wanted to overcome any obstacles that would potentially prevent me from doing so. I wanted to try to eliminate self-doubt, fear, and any pre-conceived notions what songs should sound like and find a reason to create something new in an environment that is both over saturated and begging for more."
And what was that reason?
"For me," says Gehring, "that reason was simply that I had something I needed to explore, both as it relates to my creativity and deeper anxieties that stemmed from this abundance of opinions and seemingly sourceless, floating frustrations I constantly felt and still do."
Upon first glance, the urgency of Great Dismal can be misunderstood as a sole tone of disparity; however, after repeated listens, other thematic motifs become more pronounced -- threads of meaning that, in retrospect, Gehring describes as "tempered hope, humility, and critical self-awareness." By allowing these conflicting voices to speak, Gehring has begun to exorcise his own demons in an attempt to pave a road toward a more tangible sense of clarity, understanding, and faith -- on the other side, those on the same journey will find solace in his courage to press "record" during the process.