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Clandestine Songs

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Album Review

It's true that to a degree Grand Mal traffic in a '70s rock vernacular, but leader Bill Whitten & co. have always sounded of their own time, too. When he fronted the '90s alternative group St. Johnny, the closest tie was to the noisy squall and winding words of the concurrent Pavement, but with the comparatively toned-down Grand Mal, his band charts a different, no less contemporary course. To uphold the allusions to classic rock, though, one could make a case for Clandestine Songs being a veritable Basement Tapes for the modern-day, Brooklyn-centric, independent music scene. Recorded in Whitten's suitably situated apartment, it features a revolving cast, including rising star guitarist Mike Bones and side players from Mercury Rev and Antony & the Johnsons, not to mention a few who shared the '90s underground scene with St. Johnny in Rollerskate Skinny and Grasshopper. They all pile merrily together, fleshing out the sound with ample backing vocals and plenty of instrumental variation, but given how many people are involved it still sounds like the work of a singular mind. It doesn't hurt that producer extraordinaire Dave Fridmann gave the tapes a quick once-over before the album hit the shelves, but frankly, it doesn't stand out, either. Many of the best moments are found in the few times the group actually blow things wide open, standing in opposition to the claustrophobic nature of the rest. The chorus of "Laugh It Off," for one, swells into a majestic gait with buzzing guitars and thundering piano approximating a symphony, a nice little illusion to underlie the catharsis of the titular advice, presented as the antidote after "Your bride's absconded back to hell or who knows where." With its trebly glam guitar lead skating over a layer of joyous fuzz, "Guitars Strum in Dejection" offers another more expansive number that emerges as a dead ringer for a peak era T. Rex cut. It's hard to ignore the even more explicit piano fragment on "His Death Was Our Punishment," pulled strait from the famous interlude of Derek & the Dominos' "Layla" only to linger dreamlike in the background, baiting recognition. All this classicism doesn't mean Grand Mal isn't given to a bit of experimentation: the fun-house excursion of "Praxis Tape" makes for a rare instance of the assembled cast sounding loose and unhinged. On the finale, "Drink 'Em Up," Whitten sings "Here come the saviors of rock 'n roll/With their guitars and their doggerel…Sometimes I wish they'd go to hell," but he ultimately concludes, "You know the truth/You're the proof of my existence." A peculiar little sentiment to be sure, but one that exudes just the right amount of self-awareness all the same.


Formed: 1995 in New York, NY

Genre: Rock

Years Active: '90s, '00s

Bill Whitten formed the New York City band Grand Mal after the dissolution of his former group, the Connecticut combo St. Johnny, in 1995. While his former unit gloried in Sonic Youth-style fuzz and feedback (with a distinct slacker air), Grand Mal was decidedly less lethargic, glorying in glammed-up aggression and gutter-punk abandonment. Whitten launched Grand Mal with a primarily solo EP in 1996. The punctuations of energy and hearty stabs at club-kid culture (bolstered by the vocals of Carmen...
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