Diamond In The Forehead - Garry Gray and The Sixth Circle (Off The Hip)
Now I have to be upfront here. During the early '80s I was a huge Sacred Cowboys fan. I only saw them twice in Sydney but felt they were The Real Deal: a band in this territory of cool, alternative cowboy/Delta punk be that was coming from USA via people like The Gun Club and Wall of Voodoo, yet with a savage savage edge that was a nod to the "Blood River" period Scientists.
“Nothing Grows in Texas” simply was one best Australian singles of the '80s. Of courses Molly Meldrum slagged them off on TV on "Countdown". So we all knew they had so much going for them. At the centre was Garry Gray and his sneering vocals, somewhere between Alex Chilton and Jonathan Richman with a belly-full of hard, home brewed liquor.
Well, here we are 35 years later with Garry Gray and the Sixth Circle. This is the band's debut album and Grfay has roped in a pretty impressive, motley crew who are champions of street-level and alternative rock. Melbourne’s rock royalty. On this album they are Spencer P. Jones (guitar), expat German Tex Napalm (guitar), Angela Howard (bass), Rob Wellington (guitars) and Graheme Ward (drums).
“Our God Hangs #6” opens: with a heavily rhythmic backbone that, at its loosest, is full of swagger. The guitars are intense with Spencer P. Jones' signature wail and slide prominent. Gray's menacing vocals are hollering: “I got hung without a trial” sitting on this monster of a sound. It's full and tough.
“Cadillacs” has that proto punk rawness. The song has deep soul combined with raw and gritty urban blues, and a solid backbeat. It points to the principal defining guitar line of swamp rock: al low, and dirty, with Gray again bellowing like a Southern preacher to his flock: “I am buried in sin”.
The tempo pulls back with “Club Siren” starts with an arpeggio with haunting guitars. Mellow and a chorus that is so strong; this is grade song writing. With well placed a sense of drama. As the mood shifts to the swamp work out in the song “Love is coming down”
“New Angels” works as simplistic and Dylanish; I would love to hear this song stripped back to acoustic guitar. With Greys brilliant phrasing it's a killer song, regardless. “Eight Miles High” (the Byrds cover) is another classic '60ss nod. The Byrds were simply lightweight compared to this. There's classic psychedelic guitar lines (and one of the best in rock) and the song is soaked in reverb. The mix is a bit mashed but even with this failing, it still works. There's strong guitar interplay between Spencer and Tex Naplam and the rhythm section again has that swagger and groove.
The title track “Diamond In The Forehead” is the benchmark song. It's a moving piece pf music, emotively delivered and with intelligent lyrics wrapped in torment (“the hammer strikes like a diamond in forehead".) Again, it's the combination of Gray's vocal delivery and the untwining of Tex’s and Spencer’s guitars. Stinking and working on a underbelly of themes of darkness.
Lyrically, Grey covers the classic dark roads of redemption, sin, alienation and the outside; Melbourne 2016, or the Delta 1926. It all goes back to blues; to the crossroads. It appears that when we were kids and were dragged to Sunday school it was just schooling for blues. A Beasts of Bourbon vibe is also a reference point but these guys have a more sinister feel. There's also a nod to "Exile on Main Street", to classic '60s rock and the Delta.Then there's Garry Gray, the suavely dressed hillbilly preacher hollering with his voodoo mask through these tales of darkness and sin. On the final song “No Right”, he's there with his arms in the air and the words are spat out like blood. A man who has lost his religion who's on dark journeys.
What makes this album so strong, besides its theatrics? Well, the playing is great andfull of soul. It's also the songs and Gray's delivery. So Molly slagged Gray and his mates all those years ago. Fuck him. “Do yourself a favour” and get this. I reckon it’s a killer album. - Edwin Garland
Garry Gray shouldn’t need much of an introduction. As the chainsaw-wielding frontman for Melbourne’s Sacred Cowboys in the 1980s, he raised welts across the back of a vibrant Australian underground scene and was careful to rub salt into its wounds whenever he could.
He’d already done time in punk bottom-feeders The Negatives and The Reals but it was a Cowboys appearance on prime time TV fluff factory "Countdown" that earned Gray and his band a reputation as the unhinged kids from the bad end of the school playground. Sporadic reformations by varied lineups in the ‘90s and ‘00s were more tempered in their use of powertools but didn’t harm the brand.
Gray shook off the vestiges of a rock and roll life lived hard and moved to France for many years. Now back in Australia, his latest band is The Sixth Circle and it’s one dirty motherfucker combo. Living legend (and latter day Cowboy) Spencer P Jones is the most prominent name but he’s by no means the end of the story.
The land of gutter-level rock blues is where The Sixth Circle lives. Mr Jones is joined on guitar by veteran Rob Wellington (Little Murders) and transplanted German noise merchant Tex Napalm. who co-produced the record with Gray. Graeme David Ward (drums) and Angela Howard do the hard yards in the engine room. Make no mistake, their rumble and thump counts for much and their’s is a choice partnership.
It is impossible to miss the influence of Spencer P Jones on this album. If you’ve listened to his considerable body of solo work you’ll know exactly what that means. Guitars are all over it. Nobody reels off a lick or a riff like Spencer - he’s one of the most lyrical players to grace a band room in this country, even if he doesn’t get his dues.
It’s bordering on cliche to say he fills the spaces only when absolutely necessary but it’s fucking true. Even when he Wellington and Napalm are building a wall of thick six-stringed rendered concrete (like on the churning “Our God Hangs”) you can hear the crucial notes cut through.
And there’s the striking vocal stamp of Garry Gray. HIs ability to unfurl a lyrical freak flag of psychodramatic patchwork is legend. He does the work and then some. It’s very much his record. We can only guess at some of the hidden meanings.
Garry says there’s a narrative being woven through these 11 songs and i believe him as repeated listens have failed to unlock my own doors of perception. I-94 Bar scribe Robert Brokenmouth hasn’t cracked the code and he’s credited as writing some of these lyrics. Maybe there’s a clue in the band name?
In “Dante’s Inferno”, the Sixth Circle (think of it as a stop in the elevator in a nine-floor department store called Hell) was overrun with flaming tombs and heresy…and I can detect an undercurrent of dread running through most of these songs. Yeah, this criticism caper is like dancing about architecture. So fuck art, let’s dance. Or nod our head appreciatively in the corner.
“Diamond In The Forehead:” is all about the songs. Gray has always had a knack for nailing interesting covers and the mutated version of The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” is a prime example. It all but collapses under the weight of its intertwining, scuzzy guitars and muted vocals. Its cruising altitude is somewhere just under an enormous thunderhead, somewhere out on the fringe of the Bermuda Triangle.
And then there are the originals, songs like the unabashed swing and switchblade guitars of “8 Dragons”, the swamp-march of “Love’s Coming Down” or the bump-and-grind cinemascope of “Cadillacs”. These songs have the air of greatness about them. This is a freehold mine where you can dig in and unearth your own gems.
If “Nothing Grows in Texas” is inevitably going to be Garry Gray’s epitath, this record’s going to give everyone something to play at his wake. Let’s hope that the day’s a long way away and he makes a few more albums like “Diamond In The Forehead” first. - The Barman