Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Grails - Deep Politics (2011) REVIEW

For little less than 10 years, Grails has delivered more than its share of excellent records full of intense, dark and strangely soothing instrumental beauty. Their first couple of albums ("The Burden of Hope" in 2003 and "Redlight" in 2004) were mostly relying on its musicians versatility, mainly multi-instrumentist Emil Amos, with Alex Hall and Zak Riles on guitars, the later preferably acoustic ones, and Bill Slater on bass and synths/piano, with the punctual addition of violin and saxophone. Their influences were already very diversified, from Celtic folk to Oriental music through jazz, krautrock, psychedelic rock and heavy metal. These albums were a little unfocused and relied most of the time on improvisation. Because this is an instrumental band, it was quickly stamped as post-rock. While touring Europe in 2004, London's Southern Studio invited them to record for their Latitudes series and the band, through Amos, decided to cover three pieces from three different combos from the seventies under the title " Interpretations of Three Psychedelic Rock Songs from Around the World". From around the world it is for you can find covers from American The Byrds, Franco-British Gong and Japanese Flower Travellin' Band. One could almost tell that these three bands are the core of Grails' influences, I would add Germans Amon Düül II's "Yeti" era, which will be developped in the years to come.

Grails began to touch the sky with its next releases, a serie of EPs which were collected on one CD "Black Tar Prophecies Vols. 1, 2 and 3" in 2006. These recordings represents a turning point in their musical evolution, not only because their multiple influences were, well, multiplying while making them more and more their own, but above all because they began to introduce samples and ambient textures and being more interested in sounds experimentation, rather than improvisation, and post-production. Grails was broadening its spectrum to encompass industrial kinda jazz-rock to abstract dubscapes, and one of the few recordings I know to approach the expressionistic intensity of another German band Faust. Their evolution culminated with their next opus "Burning Off Impurities" in 2007, maybe their masterpiece. On this fantastic album, the influences of world-music were more and more audible, along with jazz, but the music, by still enriching its textures and getting more colourful, didn't escape its darkest corners while becoming heavier. At that moment on Grails has become pretty disorienting as they had created a somewhat neutral genre where musical stereotypes, just like generic ingredients, were boiled and stirred and mixed following their own alchemical formulas and recipes. Grails is no typical fusion band because they don't force different musical genres together, it's more like they let these genres, jazz, folk, heavy metal, etc. marinate and ferment together following some intricate dosage known only by them.

Here and there, Grails was sounding like a heavier and more introvert brother of their labelmate Cerberus Shoal, Grails' members coming from rock, Cerberus Shoal from jazz, but they could be siblings, with different backgrounds and education

This coincidental (?) similarities, more like a 'variation', mostly disappeared with their next, excellent, far heavier and even darker "Doomsdayer's Holiday". Grails is still evolving and developping further while keeping its innate and acquired characteristics. That band is a still, or a brewery, they're keeping their trademark while adding other flavors, other tastes, others colours, always generic, they don't create new ingredients, they are distilling with, yes, stereotypes : this time mountain Black Sabbath riffs, colourful King Crimsonian "Red" era arrangement and souple pulsy jazzlike rhythm patterns. Grails' music became even more filmographic by adding extensive samples from seventies horror b-movies. Grails is creating majestic and doomed soundtracks.

It took them three years to create their last album "Deep Politics". Thanks to Timb Harris' string arrangement as much as each member further musical improvements, this is Grails' most orchestral album to date, strings was one generic ingredient they hadn't add to their music yet. They also replaced 70s b-movies atmospheres by 70s Italian spaghetti westerns and even some 70s French slightly erotic dramas. For the later, Francis Lai's influence is rather sensible on "Daughters of Bilitis" (sic). Also, the presence of acoustic piano has never been so prominent.

The opening track "Future Primitive" gives its prime colours to the album with very dark, deep and post-apocalyptic stomping keys and drums travelling though the blizzard. An ominous and slightly morriconian guitar adds to the desolate soundscape, then pretty heavy guitar riffs appears shortly followed by low keyed celtic violin. The ominous earthshaking stomps pause to let synths and rhythmic guitar wander until the loaded guitars re-appears on the horizon and the whole thing slowly irrupts with multiple guitars, tribal drums and orchestral synths to offer a rich and tremendous coda. This track works as an introduction. "All The Colors of The Dark" is even more movielike with a slightly reverberated John Barry piano to begin with, then some doomed Persuaders enters the scene, with cowboy hats, riding horses and tired faces. The night has fallen down, the road is long and thunderstorm has awaken all around them. A short moment in the eye of the hurricane before everything starts up all over again. Pretty epic guitars around, and the whole thing is sounding even more orchestral and gigantic. "Corridors of Power" sounds like a wasteland with a very slow and simple trip-hoppy beat until surprisingly polished and warm multiple panflutes flies above our heads, followed by several samples of blues singers and inintelligible voices with a very recognizable guitar line (sampled too, and still can't get the name of the movie it's coming from. Somebody? The Man from U.N.CL.E.?) until the desertic wasteland gets back on the scenery. The whole thing seems like a half awaken dream, and it's the calmest track on the album. It's also bordering on cheesiness, but just not. An evocative and jazzy piano introduces the next title track, we are not so far from Popol Vuh "Hosianna Mantra" until a moody spaghetti western-like guitar appears and suddenly some drums roll and the first clear apparition of a string orchestra shows up and for a short moment it's Mercury Rev's "Deserter's Songs". Strings as light as feather takes the star role for awhile then the band cavalcades full drums, guitars and bass and the orchestra is getting louder and more dissonant. Short hiatus to get the drums steady 4/4 and it's bordering on easylistening rock, but of a very dark matter. The already mentioned "Daughters of Bilitis" offers some rest with a light Rhodes piano melody and a slow steady pulse decorated by butterflying string quartets titllating the senses. A very sensual, near erotic tune : Francis Lai meets Bohren und Der Club of Gore or The Mount Fuji Doomjazz Corporation (check out these bands).

Until now, all songs remain around the five minutes mark, the album is getting even more ambitious with the last three which runs around eight minutes each. The sixth track "Almost Grew My Hair" pushes the band and the album further into 70s monumental prog rock territories. The guitars take the main role, 12-strings country-folk acoustic guitars and spacey electric guitars run the prog rock spectrum from Pink Floyd's David Gilmour to King Crimson's Robert Fripp without both wanky demonstration, the solos are mainly avoided to stick to the extremely written but natural sounding composition. What differentiates Grails from those monsters of rock is the very souple, jazzier than stiff rock, and imaginative rhythm section. Although this music is extremely textured, structured and layered, it always remains light and aired despite the general gloom and darkness, Idols with feet of clay. "I Led Three Lives" is maybe the climax of this already monumental suite of instrumental songs. The intro lies somewhere between scratchy glitch Fennesz/Tim Hecker stuff and some dissonant Tangerine Dream, time is dilated here, to get closer to a very moody impersonation of the later with far more layers and dissonant crispy sounds disrupting the relative quietness of the whole, distorted gritty guitars contaminate the air like a virus quickly cleared by more Grand Canyon guitars to finally explode in a formidable bacchanale of typhonic guitars in between the loudest King Crimson and the dirtiest Black Sabbath riffs imaginable. The dynamic is slightly reminiscent of Pink Floyd's "Animals" but with added depth, texture and surely energy. The drums are stomping like John Bonham's back from hell to fade into gruesome grainy sort of Faust krautrockish synths. Fingerpicking acoustic guitars introduce the album's last track "Deep Snow" then subtle synths offers some atmospheric accompaniment. Acoustic piano gives the ensemble an almost Jim O'Rourke/Gastr Del Sol feeling until the jazzy but powerful rolling drums wakes you up for a short while to get back to the previous mood. Everything remains relatively subdued knowing that it cannot stay like this, even if you know anything can happen. The following movement worths the wait with a faraway coming implosion of the whole band arsenal and it's suddenly very hard rocking oriental folk. Grails just did their own Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" for just around 15 seconds, not more, they don't need to keep on doing the same riff over and over, because they turn back West to more celtic hard folk assaults. The strings and horns offer a bridge back home to that sort of acoustic Americana of the beginning with some dark piano drops as a coda.

Listening to this album is like watching a very dark, gloomy, menacing, violent and also luscious movie, some gothic spagetthi western with Giallo style eroticism, and like these movies, the whole thing sounds bloody serious and grandguignol at the same time. There was several moments when I was expecting Mike Patton to enter the scene in a tuxedo with a cape and his big macho serial killer of a crooner voice. By the way, the closest recordings I could think of while listening to this last Grails' album are John Zorn's Ennio Morricone's interpretation on his incredible "The Big Gundown" in 1985 and, yes, Mike Patton's Fantômas' "The Director's Cut" in 2001. Except that first, Grails are playing their own compositions, and second, their music is far less excentric and confronting, more 'civilized' and atmospheric. If there is one common denominator thoughout that Grails' album it could be Italian movie soundtrack composer Hugo Montenegro, the man who composed  the main theme to Sergio Leone's film The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly as well as The Man From U.N.C.L.E., maybe even more than Ennio Morricone.

7.5 out of 10

sources :

  • The Burden of Hope (2003) - 6
  • Black Tar Prophecies Vols. 1, 2 and 3  (2006) - 7
  • Burning Off Impurities (2007) - 8
  • Take Refuge in Clean Living (2008)
  • Doomsdayer's Holiday (2008) - 7

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