Do college kids still get together in dorm rooms to take bong hits, turn off all the lights except for the Christmas strings around the ceiling, and listen to music? Like, without video games or phones? And without the intention of making out with one another?
If so, Thanks to Gravity just released an album those kids are really going to enjoy.
In the crisp, highly orchestrated and long-format style that is largely absent from mainstream music nowadays, “Division of the Human Mind” is the band’s first recording of new music in 20 years and just as bombastic and ambitious as the title would suggest.
A musician’s record, it feels at times like the soundtrack to a musical, which isn’t altogether surprising, given what else frontman and songwriter Andy Happel has been up to lately. Just a couple months back, Happel was debuting “somewhere/elsewhere” with lyricist Kerem Durdag, a pop-rock musical about the experience of a Turkish immigrant here in the U.S. It’s a piece with big themes, about finding love and joy in the face of racism and hate.
On the new album, too, there are some pretty big ideas, though it’s more prog than pop. Settling into middle age (Happel’s daughter guests a fiddle solo on the opening track), Thanks to Gravity embrace love and togetherness, at times taking a somewhat dark view of where we are and what’s to come. “End of Civility” is fueled by Drew Wyman’s rolling bass, like a bleak tunnel where we’re “stumbling into the downfall of the human race.” Spacey keyboards give the whole thing an Isaac Asimov vibe, a retro futurism, and the themes would fit into most of science fiction’s basic premise: “We’ve got to tame our killer instinct,” Happel sings, here staying higher register and reedy, “fill up our lives with love and life/ It’s all we have.”
Well, that and fighting tooth and nail against “the coming scourge,” which we are warned against in “The Last Generation.” This is more ’70s butt-rock, infused with four-note rushing fiddle riffs and quicker vocals. Psychedelic and spacey, the fiddle getting all scritchy and distorted, “the coming AI” is a looming threat. The delivery of the lyrics and melody make it a bookend with “In the Beginning,” where we’re told “the universe could only have been set in motion by love.”
Can machines love? Happel seems doubtful.
Maybe this an opportunity, too, for heading back to Thanks to Gravity’s 1998 album “Start,” released on Capitol Records as part of a deal they never finished (it’s a long story, a disappointment sorta broke up the band). They released a deluxe edition of “Start” last year, with a couple of bonus tracks and demos and alternative versions. It’s a little more rock and roll, with some vestiges of the 1990s sentimentality sticking to it. Happel’s a stronger vocalist now, with a better understanding of his range, though, and the performances, as a whole, on the new record are crisper and more self-assured. It’s a much more confident band.
The new record is captured better, too. The guys at Acadia really did well in getting razor-sharp sounds. Engineer Jason Phelps is a monster player in his own right, and he and Happel taught together at the 317 Main Street music school in Yarmouth, while he and Wyman play in A Band Beyond Description together, where Phelps does a mean Jerry. Listen especially for Sean Daniels’ snares and cymbals, or when he rolls across the toms on the instrumental “Danke Schlagzeuger.” He and Happel’s quick-strummed acoustic guitar provide much of the energy and drive here, a propulsive force that makes the record seem urgent and pressing.
They certainly took their time in doing it, though. The first offering, “Send up the Signal,” was out in 2018. “Blanket of Stars,” a pretty piano number featuring Duncan Watt that serves as the big courtship song, was out in 2021. An ambitious high school theater program might have staged it by now, maybe with one of those cool star projectors for the big second chorus, where “we’ll watch galaxies collide, tectonic plates slide,” and “I’ll have your hand, and you’ll have mine/ We’ll lay our heads in that stillness of time.”
But what’s the hurry? Part of their appeal is their refusal to wrap things up before it’s necessary. The album’s closing piece, “March of the Wandering Star,” runs more than six minutes, just one of the traits it shares with Peter Gabriel of Genesis. There are little hits on the triangle. Happel calls out, “birds! Feathers! Hollow bones!” They feel themselves a little bit in the jam.
Hey, if you’re only going to release a record once every 20 years, you might as well stuff it full.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at [email protected].
2 Weeks, 5 Songs
Ben Hunsberger – “Heart of December” | Part of a nine-song new release, “Shelter in a Quiet Place,” recorded with Jud Caswell, this puts Hunsberger front and center with his piano and soft spoken vocals, like a song that plays when a hospital show on TV gets sad.
billy woods & Kenny Segal – “Rapper Weed” | Just one of many standout tracks on the new album “Maps,” an underground rap production linked to the Ruby Yacht syndicate that still holds Maine ties and loves to leverage bop-style jazz riffs. Love it when billy just starts chuckling at the finish.
Mel Stone – “Easy Friend” | Still awesome, and still an impassioned plea for intimacy, we get a remastered version of this hit from last year as part of a repackaged album that smashes together a couple of EPs to create “Princess.”
Lyle Divinsky – “Risk It All” | The R&B-loving big singer mixes it up with a quieter tune full of steel guitar and just a touch of twang: “But you know I ain’t exactly a saint.”
Drive by Todd – “Sabotage” | Some solid heavy rock from the Midcoast here, where Joanna Grierson declares, “I’m the queen,” in menacing enough fashion that I’m not going to argue.