This gorgeous record is like a whisper with the power of a bomb blast.
David “College” Grellier’s new album, Shanghai, marks a different and intriguing path for the Nantes-based synth artist.
Grellier is best known to some because of “A Real Hero,” his collaboration with Electric Youth from Drive, and for releases like Secret Diary, Teenage Color, Heritage, and “Save the Day,” with Nola Wren. But on Shanghai, he has traded in the shiny synths and dance beats for a drumless, more ambient and eclectic-sounding concept album that in many respects functions as a score waiting for a film. (The artist, according to press materials, sets the album’s story in 1920s Shanghai.)
In creating organic-sounding, ambient-electronic micro-environments tied to a period-piece concept, Grellier has made one of his most powerful College albums — and one of his boldest. This gorgeous record is like a whisper with the power of a bomb blast.
That is quite apparent on “Love Peas,” the pre-release single featuring Shanghai-based singer Hama. However, from the opening notes of the first track, “A Strange Guide,” to the last on “8,” it’s pretty staggering how much meaning and powerful emotion Grellier can pack in each oft-understated musical expression.
(Buy the vinyl and CD today from Invada. It’s also available in digital form via Lakeshore in all of the usual places, like iTunes and such.)
A New College?
When Grellier released Old Tapes last December, the collection of demos and unreleased songs from the first decade of the College project seemed to represent his closing and locking a door to the past. There can be only one “A Real Hero,” after all.
However, Shanghai shows that Grellier hasn’t reinvented the wheel. Sure, Grellier’s embarking on a new journey here — the blend of nostalgia and modernity extends further back than the 1970s and 1980s. He’s certainly eschewing the sound of upbeat bangers like “Teenage Color” and nostalgic synthpop songs like “She Never Came Back” and “Save The Day,” but this isn’t a reboot.
The mood-and-moment studies and contemplative passages contained on Shanghai are hallmarks of College’s full-length albums. Do a deep dive and you’ll find as far back as “Desire” on 2008’s Secret Diary, “Weisberg Control” on 2011’s Northern Council, and “Un Ville Silencieuse” on 2014’s Heritage, that Grellier has made these types of pieces a pivotal part of his artistic expression.
You’ll find that spirit on Shanghai in cuts like “Hotel Theme, Pt. 1,” which at its heart is a classic College composition. There are interwoven parts wrapped around each other with memorable melodies that together create a particular moment. In this case, though, the instruments are traditional organs speaking to some potentially ominous situation.
Another cut that follows the mold, but is updated for the Shanghai concept, is “Typhoon Alert.” It’s a somewhat ominous, mid-tempo arpeggiator-driven piece with some traditional-sounding Chinese instrumentation on melody duties and a brooding, deep synth pad acting as the weather pattern of everyone’s fears. I can still hear the haunting melody.
Lead single and sole vocal track “Love Peas” is certainly a different type of single for College, though, even if it maintains his impeccable sense of space. The drumless track is more on the orchestral side than anything he’s ever done before — down to plucked strings — even if some synth flourishes remain. Hama sings enchantingly in her native tongue, making sure to never go too far above a whisper so as to keep the slow-burning reflections in their place. It’s a truly gorgeous track — certainly one of the best College tracks Grellier has ever recorded.
There are passages in which things get a little energized, though. In these songs instrument runs take on shades of Philip Glass-style minimalistic kinesis, flying up and down with arpeggiations that raise the heart rate and build up suspense.
“Briefcase” achieves that well, coming after “Typhoon Alert,” indicating a need for the protagonists to get their act together and get on the move with some special package in tow. It’s a circular movement of arps and strings and accordions that come together to produce some heavy-duty anticipation. Another song, “The Airport,” drives up and down the scales in similar fashion, albeit with more foreboding.
Although I’ve highlighted some songs that are representative of my points, it’s really best to experience Shanghai as a whole — as one song with 15 movements, or as a cool short film with 15 cues. That’s the only true way to absorb the subtle but powerful nuances of the story as each cut unfolds. After all, this is a record that truly becomes richer and more engulfing with each new listen.
As mentioned earlier, buy the vinyl and CD today from Invada (a limited number of which include a lithograph Grellier has signed). It’s also available in digital form via Lakeshore in all of the usual places, like iTunes and such.
(Feature Photo: The cover art for Shanghai, designed by Alexander Burkart, who also did the Vehlinggo logo.)