Our site’s belief in The Sound Gallery’s sophomore full-length CD release, phos, should be evident in the fact that we, along with Republic of Texas Recordings, released this CD. That we would put our name and resources behind phos speaks volumes about our opinion of it. Given our enthusiasm for phos, it might be difficult for us to write a detached and critical review for the disc. Perhaps the reader, though, will be slightly comforted to know that: (a) while Somewhere Cold helped to release phos, it none of our writers were actually involved in the creative process behind the release, giving us a sense of distance from the project, and (b) we were already wowed by a non-Somewhere Cold release from The Sound Gallery, the 2004 debut full-length Designed for Reading. So, it is from the vantage point as a music fan with an expectation for another quality release that I approach phos for this review.
The Sound Gallery is Herb Grimaud Jr., an experienced bassist and songwriter whose bounced from band to band for over a decade in Southern California’s fertile music scene. He formed The Sound Gallery as a means to explore his own musical ideas, enlisting other gifted artists to help. After releasing Designed for Reading, a CD with a plethora of guest performers and featuring various takes on ambient-drone post-rock music, Grimaud Jr. learned of the passing of his brother-in-law’s close friend. As a way to offer condolences and comfort to his brother-in-law, Grimaud Jr. created the singular and minimalistic phos. phos stands starkly in contrast to the more varying Designed for Reading. With three tracks of wordless, subtle ambient music, phos shows The Sound Gallery more focused than the previous effort. What phos may seem to lack in variations, though, is illusory, as careful repeated listens reveals slow-moving and ever-morphing layers of music.
“phos I” is the most subtle of the three tracks, offering strands of empathic dark guitar drones. Grimaud Jr. reveals himself to be a master of ambient texture, and the listener immediately gets lost in the folds of his guitars. The sounds subtly mutate throughout the piece, creating a sense of movement. As the track drifts towards its ending, the listener is left satisfied, having been taken on an all-encompassing journey by The Sound Gallery.
“phos II”, the undeniable emotional climax of phos, begins with terrifying back-masked samples of eerie vocals, followed by a thunderous repeating boom that alone is worth the price of the CD. The splendid attack on the listener’s senses gradually fades into more drones, but the drones on “phos II” feature more movement and variation than on “phos I”. The thunderous boom reappears as a distant rumble throughout the 28 minute track, as do haunting vocals by Lorri Myers. phos II is intense, foreboding and chilling, demonstrating how gripping ambient music can be. The 28 minutes pass away leaving the listener both exhausted and craving more of Grimaud Jr.’s study of death, decay, and darkness.
“phos III” is a brighter and ultimately more hope-inspiring track and feature a delicate piano melody meandering throughout the brighter drones. A muffled drum machine even appears late on in the song to give it further direction on this, the most structured track on phos. The foreboding darkness of the earlier tracks are here replaced by a gentleness and lightness, and while the music remains sullen, it ultimately projects peace and tranquility onto the listener.
Taken as a whole, phos is an impressive 54 minutes of understated drone music. On this merit alone, phos stands as a release worthy of discriminating ambient music lovers. However, the added element of real-life tragedy, and the way Grimaud Jr. deftly and sensitively handles the grim subject matter, shines a whole new light on phos. In the end, phos empathizes with the grieving listener, validating their pain and making no light of death while offering hope and a perspective from which to move on from, all without trite lyrics. phos is an intensely personal and highly aesthetic release, not only impressing the listener’s overwhelmed ears, but engaging the listener’s soul. Highly recommended.