Wray and Alabama Symphony Orchestra Show Off Brittelle’s Explorative Rock Opera
Birmingham DIY band pairs up with area symphony for colorful, imaginative originals and rock fusion arrangements
Although I don’t get plenty opportunities as I used to, I do listen to classical music. I have no other choice; my cousin is a famous opera star. Actually, Kathleen Battle was on the same opulent stage at the Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center last September, delivering moving spirituals accompanied by the virtuoso Joel Martin and harmonious sounds of the Oakwood Aoelians. I don’t get a chance to write about those instances because I’m a pop music critic. And I try to stay in my lane. But on January 7 at exactly 7:30 p.m., I had the privilege of listening to one of the nation’s top symphonies, the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, who now calls Alys Stephens their place of residency, performing alongside a rock band. Don’t consider it too strange. Plenty of rock artists blend the world of classical into their standard sonic template for angelic embellishments: My Morning Jacket, Florence + the Machine, Coldplay, lots of alt-rock. But this was not your typical classical rock setup. As a part of their Classical EDGE series, the acclaimed symphony is forced to experiment and explore worlds outside of the norm and to create a type of fusion that feels groundbreaking.
With resident conductor Christopher Confessore at the helm, the symphony showed off their collaboration with Birmingham-based rock band Wray (sometimes styled as WRAY). On a number of occasions, Wray’s band members – bassist David Brown, guitarist David Swatzell and drummer Blake Wimberly – have described their performances and music as a “wall of sound.” In most cases, others have described it as loud. But they probably met their match when combining with the sturdy discipline of the orchestra. The electro-acoustic arrangements, tooled by New York arranger William Brittelle, were mostly ambient and showed the band working in a world of restraint. After the symphony pulled off a sumptuous rendition of Jean Sibelius’s “Symphony No. 5, op. 82, E-flat major” on their own, Wray walked on the stage to debut the calm, serene piece “Hedron.” This showcase blended never-ending synth chords across a sea of symphonic wonderment. Then came “Hypata, a single off the band’s forthcoming sophomore album, now tweaked for classical saturation. Unlike the surf psychedelic rock of the original, the ASO treatment left the song with a slower hypnotic tempo and the vocals of David Brown reduced to almost-inaudible chants, which echoed in the Alys Stephens chambers like yoga exercises. “Blood Moon” seemed a bit chaotic, with multi-layered sections and echo-weary drumming, but showcased more of Wray’s DIY regimen.
It was the final selection, “Color Drones,” that made the biggest impression of the evening. Showcasing the depths of Brittelle’s visceral imagination, Wray and the Alabama Symphony Orchestra’s climax came with a punctuating string sections, colorful ascensions and an accompanying light show in the background that aided its storytelling.
For those anticipating familiar tunes attached to a Foo Fighters-esque rock show and decked with familiar tunes string and brass empowerment, they may have left a bit underwhelmed. Plus, there was no encore. But those familiar with Wray’s indie style and the careful explorations of Alabama Symphony Orchestra, they were blessed with an earful of meditative therapy. It’s also important to note the symphony’s performance of the 20th century piece “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten.” The piece was dedicated to the memory of French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, who died this week at the age of 90.
The band’s sophomore album, Hypatia, debuts this week on Communicating Vessels.
Photograghy by J Matthew Cobb