Pale Grey Lore balances dark, light on stunning second album

Andy Downing
Pale Grey Lore

“Before the Fall,” which lands early on Pale Grey Lore’s sophomore album, Eschatology (Small Stone), opens amid darkness, singer and guitarist Michael Miller delivering his ominous words atop a thick, sludgy musical backdrop. As the song progresses, mountains crumble and die. Impenetrable curtains of ash fall from the sky like rain. But just as it sounds as if the band has given in to this earth-crushing despair, a solitary guitar cuts the gray like a beam of sunlight and steadily soars upward, as if pointing to brighter days.

And so it goes on an album where songs center on an out-of-touch, money-hoarding ruling class (“Greed Springs Eternal”; “Regicide”), environmental decay (“Before the Fall”) and a planet shredded by nuclear warfare (“Void-Cursed”), yet there’s never any give. “Still, we soldier on,” Miller offers on “Waiting for the Dawn,” a line that could easily double as the band’s ethos.

“The idea of nihilism is always something that is attractive as this fatalistic concept. But, actually, as somebody who has taught philosophy, it was fascinating to talk with students and be like, ‘All right. What is it like to embrace this kind of view?’ And it turns out you can’t,” said Miller, who joins guitarist Xander Roseberry, bassist Donovan Johnson and drummer/brother Adam Miller for a record release show at Ace of Cups on Friday, Sept. 6. “It’s something you can entertain, but you can’t really live it, unless you’re pathologically depressed, and in that case, it’s kind of a malfunction, right? With ordinary, normal human psychology, you are kind of wired to carry on and to care about things and to believe in things and to have values and to take a stand.”

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At the same time, Miller described himself as a “cynical, hard-nosed realist,” and this viewpoint reveals itself in songs like “Void-Cursed,” a fantastical track that is simultaneously hardwired to reality. (The album’s themes are derived equally from network news tickers, Dungeons & Dragons and the works of H.P. Lovecraft.)

Miller said the narrative in “Void-Cursed” follows “a sort of upper class of techno-industrialist, neo-feudalist capitalists who have depleted the world and created this technical panopticon that spies on everyone at all times and gathers their data,” which is something that should feel both sinister and familiar to anyone with a Facebook account. As the song nears its end, this ruling class blasts into space in a fleet of self-funded spaceships (which, again, might feel a bit familiar), leaving behind a war- and weather-decimated planet only to realize they’ve nowhere to go, and are adrift in their own, expensive tombs.

“That’s the poetic justice in my narrative for the Elon Musks of the world, and the Peter Thiels — these little Libertarian assholes who want to build a little island for themselves,” Miller said. “I wanted them to get their desserts.”

Compared with Pale Grey Lore’s self-titled 2017 debut, Eschatology, again engineered and mixed by Andy Sartain, is somehow denser and more spacious, with claustrophobic, fuzzed-out moments giving way to airier passages that introduce some breathing space, which makes the album sound somehow weightier and more massive. The recording also better captures the interplay between Miller and Roseberry’s divergent guitar tones, with Miller’s dark, reverb-y guitar work acting as foil to Roseberry’s sharper tone — yet another example of the balance of dark and light that shapes both the new record and, in a sense, the band’s worldview.

“It’s one of those things where you have to drive forward and be a beacon for others,” said Miller, who is active in groups such as the Democratic Socialists of America, helping run its brake light replacement clinics, which are designed to help lower-income commuters avoid run-ins with the police originating from broken taillights. “Even if you have torn back the veil and seen how horrible things are.”

Ace of Cups

8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 6

2619 N. High St., Old North

ALSO PLAYING: Brujas del Sol, No Balance

Pale Grey Lore