An electric guitar riff duets with an energetic cello, followed by the drummer leading violin strings to set off the rock-influenced melody of “Ghettoblaster.” The mix of classical and electric instrumentation should contend with one another, yet instead it creates a spirited intensity. A tranquil saxophone brings down the temperament of the strings to a smooth jazz vibe while the end of the song builds into a roar.
The Mercy Stone is a new 10-member, 12-piece ensemble with roots heavily planted in Cal State Fullerton, as the majority of the members are alumni or current students of the school’s music program. They independently released their first album, “Ghettoblaster” on Sept. 4 and are already discussing label contracts for distribution deals.
“I realized I wanted to have this project that’s kind of like a rock band but I was definitely looking to draw on some of the art music tradition that I’ve been studying in school and dealing with for the past several years,” said Scott Grady, sole composer and electric guitarist of The Mercy Stone.
Grady was experimenting with rock in a classical setting at his recitals during his master’s program at CSUF. After he graduated in 2015, he sought to create a rock band consisting of a full-string section along with drums and an electric guitar. He wanted to integrate the elements of his classical training with the rock, pop, funk, reggae and metal music that he grew up listening to without it sounding “gimmicky.”
“First Light,” a mellow intertwining of electric guitar plucks and string strokes, became the track that solidified The Mercy Stone during their initial rehearsals.
“If perhaps there is a theme on the album, it would be one of alienation – especially alienation coming from an academic music environment from the past few years. I was encountering, studying, absorbing a lot of new art music, a lot of which I think is absolutely brilliant. And at the same time, as a generalization, (I was) feeling an overwhelming disconnect between artists and audiences,” Grady said.
Grady finds that his album “Ghettoblaster” is a reaction against this alienation because it allowed him to compose satisfying music based on his influences and studies.
Shawn Graham, the bassist in The Mercy Stone, is pursuing a master’s in jazz performance at CSUF and has prior experience with classical and rock music. Graham said he has continued his involvement with The Mercy Stone because the band allows him to play a convergence of these genres, and described Grady as a “musical genius.”
Songs such as “Triptide” take lead from some of Grady’s modern influences like Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix as his electric guitar often rings over the accompanied classical and jazz sounds. The album has an experimental feel as familiar genres pulse in and out. The string section rises to the challenge of the arrangements as they keep exploring their place away from a classic orchestra.
“I feel like this project and this album takes on quite seriously some absurd and comical hypotheticals like if Jimi Hendrix would have picked up a cello as a teenager instead of a guitar and spent his time playing in string quartets and orchestras,” Grady said. “What would have come out of that?”
While Grady was a student at CSUF he heard cellist Emmanuel Ventura-Cruess’ band Emael play a couple of times and was inspired by his eclectic sound. Ventura-Cruess said he was already playing rock with his cello, leaving Grady confident in Ventura-Cruess’ abilities when writing his cello parts for The Mercy Stone.
“A lot of people are doing the rock-classical thing but most of the people who are doing that are just playing covers of old rock songs,” said CSUF alumnus Ventura-Cruess. “I think the thing that makes The Mercy Stone different is we’re playing some pretty complex music, time signature and harmonic wise and it’s all original. Scott’s writing some stuff that is brand new, we’re not playing covers.”
Drummer and CSUF alumnus Joris Daniel Hoogsteder is also a part of both The Mercy Stone and Emael. Saxophonist Steven Ragsdale, woodwind performer Nathan King, violinist Dei Urresti, percussionist Luther Schmidt and viola player Taichiroh Kanauchi are additionally affiliated with CSUF and Grady’s band. Cal State Long Beach alumna Jasmine Kim is an additional violinist in the band.
The moment when Grady wrote the album’s title track “Ghettoblaster” was when Grady felt like he had finally composed the sound that he was setting out to create. He describes the process of recording the album as psychologically challenging but eventually he learned to love the process. “Ghettoblaster” was recorded locally in downtown Fullerton and Brea.
“I feel like everything came together really well. At some point, I was able to let go of listening really critically and now I can just listen and be really psyched about the album from start to finish,” Grady said. “This project for me, especially the recording of the album, was for better or for worse like growing up both as a person and an artist.”