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Grand Ulena - Gateway To Dignity

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Artist: Grand Ulena

Album: Gateway To Dignity

Label: Family Vineyard

Review date: Mar. 17, 2003

Power Improv

The members of St. Louis' Grand Ulena have all done time with some very hip, artsy groups – bassist Darin Gray has worked with the Dazzling Killmen, You Fantastic, and On Fillmore; guitarist Chris Trull has done studio work for indie-dirty birds Bunnygrunt; drummer Danny McCain tenured with spazz rock act Sissy Spacek. But Gateway To Dignity is clearly a rock record at its core, and not in an artsy-fartsy sort of way; no Last Exit and Henry Cow album can convince me that Grand Ulena is anything but a rock power trio. While this technically proficient band's methods are sometimes caustic and beguiling, the group thrives on the power of loud instruments, no matter how much they blur the lines of convention.

The members of Grand Ulena point their respective weapons at each other during the opening "Between Tholozan and Othela" like polar bears circling each other before battle. The group states its intent on this track, playing weird, precise, non-linear rock music that feels like an inside joke. But where some groups take this humorous approach to levels of silly punch lines repeated ad nauseam, Grand Ulena keeps pulling new gags out of its hat. "Total Joplin" features terrific Fripp-based guitar work, with rhythms that repeat until they morph into something completely different.

A less egoistic Don Caballero might have made something like "Crowbar at Crescent & Cricket." The "song" starts with jazzy riffs and playful rhythms that quickly burn and fizzle out, only to lead into a holy house of Zeppelin-like proportions, in which McClain plays a drum solo that would dazzle most Berklee students. "Tholozan..." and "Crowbar..." demonstrate high enough levels of intensity, stamina, and attention deficit disorder to catch the ears of obsessive Zappa fans.

Grand Ulena's ability to stay grounded in the ethos of rock (and they do – some of Trull's guitar work sounds like Nels Cline tearing through the ZZ Top songbook, and Gray's and McCain's rhythms are reminiscent of the best work of Jones and Bonham) keep from sounding like corny jazz, even if they do shoplift at some cheesy souvenir stands.

Any group of cynical kids with music degrees can try to play this sort of music, but it takes a special group to muster the visceral intensity to channel Black Flag AND Massacre at the same time. Grand Ulena is one such group, and remember that when some skinny Spock rockers start imitating them in a few months.

By Stephen Sowley

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