At some point recently, I realized that my posts often do not provide much in-depth background on what the hell I'm on about. This is perhaps a failing on my part as a blogger, and maybe one that I can rectify.
Grails' latest album Deep Politics was my #1 of last year. They are from Portland, OR. I'd say their music is pretty diverse, but it's mostly guitar-based, instrumental, psychedelic post-rock, with some exotic-Eastern and/or ancient-Druidic influences thrown in.
"Space Prophet Dogon" by Grails, from The Burden of Hope (2003)
Depending on who you are, you might be thinking, "kinda like a 21st-century Sun City Girls?" To which I respond (telepathically), "okay." Now I'm no expert on early Grails, but I do know a couple of facts. First, they originally made a prominent place in the mix for a violin player, who apparently disappeared one day never to return. (This has always sounded to me more like a voluntary disappearance, rather than a criminal or mystical one.) Second, they covered Sun City Girls' tune "Space Prophet Dogon" on their debut album, The Burden of Hope (2003). Also when in doubt (or the dark), go with the opening title track, or maybe the climactic closer.
This post has taken longer than expected to wrap up, so I've had more of a chance to listen to my new Grails LP's. I can see why the first two albums are kind of set aside from the later ones. They are not as fully-formed as more mature Grails, and are definitely closer to a more trad post-rock sound. But for a true Grails fanatic and/or a fan of the post-rock genre, I'd say they're pretty essential. The Burden of Hope should be a natural starting point: debut album, and actually really good on its own terms.
Initial Impression: 6.5/10
"Fevers" from Redlight (2004)
Then there's the 2nd record, Redlight - I've only just recently gotten both these records... Never had before, but they've just been re-mastered (by Carl Saff) and re-released on vinyl LP. $29 for these 1st two, and they found some old Black Tar Prophecies, Vol. 1 split-LP's (2006)? Done!
Turns out that I did already have one song from this album: "Reprieve" off the budget CD/DVD label sampler Neurot Recordings I (2004). Although this product description asterisks it as "previously unreleased," so maybe a different version. "The Volunteer" also catches my attention more quickly.
With limited time and other musics all the time, I've found myself going back to Redlight less often. It gives the impression of a thinner, quieter record than the 1st one, with everything kind of on its way to something else. I'm hoping (and half-expecting) to discover this to be my fault, and that this album just requires much closer listening.
Initial Impression: 5/10
"Master Builder" by Grails, from Interpretations of Three Psychedelic Rock Songs from Around the World (2005)
The covers EP Interpretations of... wasn't where I discovered Grails, but it might have been when I went overboard. (It is where I discovered Southern Lord Records' Latitudes series, though...) My favorite Gong tune was already "Master Builder," and they (loosely) cover that! I got The Notorious Byrd Brothers (1968) entirely based on the Grails cover of The Byrds' "Space Odyssey", so that one worked in the opposite direction. And the final 3rd is Japanese, "Satori" by the Flower Travellin' Band, covered here. Great, great EP!
Buy vinyl or download from the label. Download .flac or .mp3 from Boomkat, or on iTunes (I guess).
"Black Tar Prophecy" from Black Tar Prophecies, Vol. 1 (2006)
Exit violin player around this time, enter the Black Tar Prophecies series (2006-). Grails have been kind of cagey with their 'title' tracks. "Burden of Hope" on The Burden of Hope, "Red Light" on Redlight, and the trend continues on... These EP's and split releases provide fertile ground for Grails to explore new approaches or possibly to clear outtake archives. Either way, weird stuff - such as... "Bad Bhang Recipe." Vol. 1 is a split-LP with a Red Sparrowes epic.
"Black Tar Frequencies" from Black Tar Prophecies, Vol. 2 (2006)
Then there came another EP, solo this time, 4 more songs. Greatest stuff, such as "Back to the Monastery" and "Stray Dog" and so on...
And semi-finally, the collection Black Tar Prophecies, Vol's 1, 2, & 3 (2006) added "Erosion Blues" and "More Erosion."
So, for 2006 Grails was explosively productive and experimenting with a new line-up, and really digging in. They've laid down the post-rock, and moved through the droney space-outs, and are heavying up their explorations with the occasional crunch. Start with the CD collection, because this material does hang together well as a single record. You can go looking for the individual volumes when you need more, or while supplies last!
My evaluation: 8/10
"Silk Rd" from Burning Off Impurities (2007)
Upon regrouping and prophecying, Grails came out with Burning Off Impurities (probably should've been #1, 2007), a whole new full-length album. Probably their most jammy & Krauty collection. All the way from awesome opener "Soft Temple", through the mysterious "Origin-ing", unto the official video for "More Extinction." Seriously, the whole damned thing is magnificent!
It's a 10/10.
Then in 2008, a double dose: Doomsdayer's Holiday and Take Refuge in Clean Living (co-#6, 2008). And this where we begin the Astral record on Grails, since they were ranked in the inaugural list. Wow, that was some pretty decent early blogging - I think I got most of the stuff fairly spot-on.
Anyway, yes. Grails major strength at this point was mood-building and dream-transport, but I'll still give big nods to songwriting and technical musicianship. Their "style" on these 3 records becomes much more elusive: Mystical Jazzcore Krautrock? Indie Exotica Jamband? Heavy Psychedelic Post-rock? ... probably.
I often think of Doomsdayer's Holiday as being significantly longer than its partner, but it's not so much. Just more, and maybe more iconic, tunes. You've got both yer "Predestination..." and yer "Reincarnation Blues." Greatly named "X-Contaminations" and an actual, exact title track! Let's move on before I bump this one over Burning Off Impurities...
"Stoned at the Taj Again" from Take Refuge in Clean Living (2008)
Much the same can be said here. Look at that song title... opening cut! I really love "PTSD," but here's "11th Hour." All quality, all the time. And Grails is back with their 'title' track(s) games here. You've got both "Take Refuge" and a separate "Clean Living." Nothing wrong with this record that an extra song or two wouldn't fix.
Take Refuge: 8.5/10
Acid Rain DVD commercial (2009)
The Acid Rain dvd came out right as I was really getting what was happening about Grails. Emil Amos (drums) creates the b-movie roll, often-NSFW film collages that go really well with his band's music. The videos above for "X-Contaminations," "More Extinction," "Predestination Blues" and "Take Refuge" are all on there. The extras - quite a few live performances and some Interpretations-era in-studio footage - might be the best part. Hell, even the menu screens are awesome!
It's film + live: 9/10
"Self-Hypnosis" from Black Tar Prophecies, Vol. 4 (2010)
There's quite a bit to like on this return-to-Prophecies EP, and quite a bit that sounds like grasping around in the dark. I still put it at #19 of 2010 overall - and in hindsight, I see how some of the tentative experiments lead on to Deep Politics the following year. But, I mean, this is the opening track. The still-mellow "Up All Night" is more like it - definitely a departure from earlier Grails, but something that I'll listen to.
Not my favorite one: 6/10
But a good place to leave this cliffhanger... I was ready for Grails to veer off into unexplored territory, which they did. I figured they would move away from the guitar-based, rock-oriented jamming, which they did. And I kind of expected them to leave me behind stylistically - which they definitely did not.
Now where's my copy of Deep Politics?