Album artwork by Patrick McCafferty
Band photo by Tyler Amos
One beautiful September morning, back when the leaves were still (mostly) green and Pittsburgh had been ice-storm-free for six months, my friend Dan and I drove to Ohiopyle State Park. I had never been. I was excited to spend the day out hiking in a beautiful, truly natural place; Frick Park just wasn’t cutting it any more. The sun was warm and inviting as we headed down Bigelow Boulevard, across the 40th Street Bridge, onto Route 28, and out of the city.
We had about a ninety-minute drive each way. I’d brought a few CD’s to spin, one of which was local ambient/instrumental group Grand Prismatic’s Archaea EP. I had a hunch that its lush, atmospheric soundscapes would be the perfect soundtrack for the trip—a meditative prelude to our trek through the forest. I put it on. The notes unfolded around us as farms and small houses with big yards blurred past our windows. We could finally see large swaths of blue sky uninterrupted. Cotton ball clouds lined the horizon over rolling, tree-covered hills. It was rejuvenating.
The entire day was a breath of fresh air, and Archaea exemplified that sonically. This trip, this feeling has stuck with me through the seven cold, challenging months since then. And each replay helps bring me back there, if only for a moment.
Luckily, Grand Prismatic (consisting of Patrick McCafferty and John Ventura on guitar, Tyler Amos on bass, and Brian Stoker on drums) is about to do it again. Their debut full-length album, Thoughts in Translation, drops on Friday, April 20th. A late release show at Club Café will mark the occasion that night.
At a point when flowers are finally starting to reappear on long-bare branches, this record’s release is perfectly timed. Thoughts in Translation is gorgeous, sparkling, and vibrant. It’s pretty, but it doesn’t rest on pretty. It’s powerful, but the subdued kind of powerful, that commands your attention seemingly without trying to. It’s well-produced and polished without feeling too slick or manufactured. And it nails that tricky balance of intrigue and immersion. As a listener, you’re never bored, but each transition, each build, each retreat, each layer, each riff, feels like it’s meant to be there. That’s the kind of effortless exploration that only comes with true mastery.
The album’s keen instincts for effect-heavy atmospheric layering and its prominent, dynamic rhythm section recall the post-rock tendencies of The Appleseed Cast. (Though aside from occasional background “ooohs,” there are no vocals or lyrics.) The emotion they’re able to capture and evoke, without the use of words, is striking. I always appreciate when a band uses every element to its fullest potential, not just the flashier or more obvious ones. And the bass and percussion here are consistently creative. There’s no resting on their laurels, no lazy scale climbs or boring 1-2-3-4’s. They’re not human metronomes, they’re artists, and that distinction makes a big difference.
With two guitars, bass, drums/percussion, and heavy use of electronic effects, the band has crafted eight tracks’ worth of spellbinding journeys. From the low, grungy opening notes of the first song (the slow-burn-turned-powerhouse “Enter Mantra”) to the high, echoic fadeout ending of the closer, “Welcome to Spacecamp,” Thoughts in Translation is a genuine pleasure to listen to. (Road trip recommended, but not required.)
Having no boring moments is an accomplishment for a record with multiple songs that exceed the six-minute mark. A prime example is the eight-minute-long standout “Hold Your Breath.” It starts off with a steady repeated guitar line, which serves as a lovely contrast to syncopated percussion that gradually grows in intensity. Acoustic guitar strums add gorgeous texture to the background as rhythmic and melodic patterns repeat over and over again. The title proves to be a fitting one—you get a sense of anticipation, of waiting for something. The band doesn’t leave you hanging too long, though. Around four minutes in, the drums start to steadily increase their energy and volume. A chugging bass undercurrent soon appears, before a shift into higher, buzzy, almost siren-like territory. The pressure is building. How much longer can the song—or you, the listener—hold its breath? (The exhale does come, but I’ll let you discover how for yourself.)
Their knack for evocative sonic journeys—and appropriate titles—doesn’t stop there. The head-nodding, midtempo “Remedies” is a welcoming, happy cure for the Pittsburgh blues (or more accurately, grays.) “Surfin’” provides cool psychedelic haze, with a thrumming bass taking the melodic lead underneath wavering extended guitar strums. It reminds me of a supercharged Khruangbin. (Stick around for the solo at the end, too; it’s killer.) And “Welcome to Spacecamp” is a true traveler, integrating downright dreamy moments with its faster, pulsing, rhythmic core. Don’t just take my word for it, though. You can check out two of the tracks, “Mind the Gap” and “Tincture Sobriety,” now, on the group’s Bandcamp page.
Whether you’re looking to fill that post-rock/instrumental gap in your playlist, searching for the next great record to throw on in your car, or simply in the mood to hear something beautiful after this long, bleak winter, Grand Prismatic will cure what ails you. If anyone else in Pittsburgh is doing what they’re doing, please point me in their direction, because I want more.
Thoughts in Translation drops on Friday, April 20th, on Apple Music, Amazon, Spotify, and Bandcamp. You can also pick up a physical copy here and at the release show, which is happening the same night at Club Café. It’s a late show, with doors opening at 10 PM and Bikini Islands getting things started at 10:30. Tickets are $10 in advance (which you can find here) or at the door. This show is 21+. Check out the Facebook event page, and make sure you’re following along with Grand Prismatic here.