North of the Dial

A large mural of the Virgin Mary is being illuminated by intermittent splashes of blue light, and against the wall to the right is an animated image of a mother running through a bizarre forest, clutching her baby. A slow, pondering snippet of melody weaves its way around the dimly lit basement and morphs from a three-note repeated phrase to a shatteringly loud single chord that would surely break windows—if this room had any.

Matthew and the Arrogant Sea guitarist Caleb Gray is leading the performance from a seated position in front of the screen, on the bottom floor of J&J's Pizza in Denton. Next to him, with another guitar and some looping devices, is Florene's Gavin Guthrie. The band is Verulf, a project that Gray has been working on since before his brother Matthew started the Arrogant Sea, and it's what Caleb considers his main artistic outlet.

Verulf is ambient music as Brian Eno intended it: tonally centered but melodically ambivalent, rich and deliberate in timbre, and patient—above all, it's patient. "I suppose the goal of this project is that of any project; to explore every possible idea or opportunity that presents itself over time," says Gray in an e-mail conversation several days later. "I have never viewed this project as accessible, but I feel that's part of the charm or allure that keeps the listeners interested."

Verulf has not quite achieved Eno-head tonight; the compositions, well-arranged though they are, lack a certain distinctiveness. But the added visual element provided by Gutterth's Brent Frishman elevates the performance from merely interesting to completely engrossing. In some ways, Gray has it wrong: If anything, ambient music like his is too accessible; the audience can fall in and out of the experience and take very little substance with them.

But tonight something different is happening. Verulf is having one of those performances that bands can wait years for, where everything comes together in one big, happy accident. Every pedal is set just right, every touch of the string erupts in something musical and effective and the group remembers why they started playing music to begin with. The film playing in the background is an inspired choice by Frishman. It's the sci-fi cult classic The Fantastic Planet, with its odd combination of surrealism and tragedy. The effect is mesmerizing, and tonight Verulf can do no wrong.

Gray loved the visual component and plans on incorporating something similar in the future.

"[Frishman's] visual element really inspired the presentation of the material," he says. "There's a subtle darkness or light to any performance, especially in ambient music...to have it displayed right before your eyes only betters the experience."

 
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