Jump For Neon is the brainchild of veteran British songwriter William Gray who has been operating over the past number of years from his adopted home in Hangzhou, China. Gray is no stranger to TSOFDs and as a local artist on the Hangzhou scene we’ve kept a constant eye on his artistic output and evolution since his arrival here; not that you’d have to go far to uncover his music anyway; since Gray remains to my mind probably one of Hangzhou’s most prolific songwriters, if not the flag-carrying trooper of his trade in the greater Zhejiang province that I currently know about.
Never one to linger for too long, William Gray’s current project, ‘Jump For Neon’ seems to have emerged no less hastily than his previous undertakings with a seemingly inexhaustible reservoir to draw his inspiration. While ‘Jump For Neon’ certainly throws a spanner in the works as regards soundscapes and width of sound to his overall discography thus far; it is none the less a triumph of modern songwriting that explores elements of pop, rock, psychedelia, blues, and shoegaze, as well as sculpting layers of textured feedback and a polished production that comes over in a tone painted much like a dystopian industrial soundscape of sorts. The album artwork portrays an interest in night photography and a curiosity in the various luminous beams that streak across the nocturnal sky.
The Jump For Neon title track kicks things off with a groovy blues laced bass riff that provides the root for a highly textured lexicon of layered lead guitar while a distorted and infectious vocal line, with refrains galore, sucks you in and grinds you down with its teeth.
‘Trigger’, showing no sign of subtle euphemisms makes satirical leaps and is lyrically something of a John Cleese ‘Ministry of Silly Walks’. While this may come off as tongue and cheek, for me it certainly pokes at certain profiles on the world stage. Never one to take himself overly seriously though, Gray seems to clown things up slightly with resonating alarm calls between interludes and then signs off in jest with a bizarre array of homemade samples.
‘Taken In’ is led by the sound of an industrial fuzz guitar riff not unlike that of The Smashing Pumpkins, 1995 release ‘Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness’. It builds momentum throughout, while samples vibrate with the flangey drum samples alongside the gravelly vocal performance. The bass is consistent in its simplicity but again goes a long way in grounding the piece and solidifying the panoramic guitar textures.
I get a real buzz from ‘To Tokyo’ as a seriously catchy Pixies-like pop tune. While the background story is slightly disturbing, it captures some of the cultural peculiarities of a foreigner living in the far-east, especially in the lines ‘…it’s not deemed obscene to use a vending machine/ I’ll add to my collection/ rid myself of dejection/ maybe get an erection’. On my first listen I get a real sense of American driven indie rock from the late 80s but I’m bewildered ever so slightly by the odd guitar starts and stops. Is it just me? I’m seriously having trouble getting my head around this!
As this album continues, the industrial blues elements seem to subside and give way to Gray’s comfort zone as a pop songwriter. Not that this is a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination. In fact he does it with excellence and ‘So Far’ is a finely written piece of pop perfection plastered with plenty of the Jump For Neon production values, and textures, with samples complimented by striking lead guitar solos.
‘Go’ is basically a very laid back blues riff. Both bass and guitar work together here to strengthen the main riff while Gray sings some very personal lyrics, ‘I know it’s good to have you in my life/because I know that I could crumble any time ‘. Musically it is a song that sums up a lot of what this album is about and is a perfect opportunity to showcase Gray as a fine blues guitarist in his own right. That being said it’s not my personal fave on the record but it works well as a cohesive part of his set.
Antithetical to ‘Go’, is the next track ‘Stop’, which is another one of my favourite parts of this album. It shines like shoegaze, it’s optimistic and lyrically very real with a gorgeous vocal tone. The samples resonate like distant whistles and wind instruments, while a sturdy bass and clean tone guitar are unperturbed chugging along, giving momentum and substance to a song that could easily be found on anything by Kevin Shields or My Bloody Valentine.
Fester brings this accomplished debut to a close with experimental jaunts in harmonics and muted strums. It grooves and intensifies with falsetto refrains and climactic riffing. Again Gray reveals some personal lyrics, ‘If there’s something you need to say/Best get it off your chest let it disappear/No need to let it fester it’ll only knock us down’. It says a lot about his current place as lead songwriter of a band (with the addition of Ray Davies/bass, John Carroll/guitar, Wu Luxia synth/sampler) and keeping a more diplomatic approach to music where he can now bask in a set that is sonically available for larger audiences and may motivate him to seek out festivals and stages in the future where he may not have that same leg-room under his solo songwriting persona.
‘Jump for Neon’ is out now on Medic Records.