Grails: Cinematic Rock Built on Historical Touchstones

Grails: Deep PoliticsGrails: Deep Politics (Temporary Residence, 3/8/11)

Grails: “I Led Three Lives”

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Since its first full-length album in 2003 for Neurot Recordings, Grails has redefined the boundaries of the instrumental-rock record.

Much like its songs, the Portland-based quartet has built a persona around the concept of evolution, releasing album after album that bears few resemblances to its predecessors. A look at Grails’ extensive discography reveals a prismatic display of every genre that the band has contorted with its psychedelic surrealism: post-rock, minimalist kraut rock, Eastern-infused soundscapes, and metal.

Displaying a remarkable knowledge and respect for music and music history, Grails is confident in crossing through genres and sounds that would be estranged in another context. The group’s songs build as swiftly as they deconstruct, always with an eclectic catalog of ideas at play.

Deep Politics, the band’s fourth release on Temporary Residence Limited, delves deeper into its countless influences and can be seen as yet another turn in the Grails music catacomb. Released three years after the heavier Doomsdayer’s Holiday, Deep Politics further nurtures Grails’ rapport with fringe culture and the occult history of library music, channeling musical modes that muddle the bizarre and accessible.

“Music history is one way we’ve learned to appreciate other human beings,” says drummer Emil Amos, who also spends time in Om and Holy Sons. “We feel this perennial camaraderie with these weird people – like David Axelrod making funk symphonies out of William Blake poetry. It’s that perversion and ruthless creative imagination that has always been a part of radical record production. We’re paying tribute to that heritage and responding to that dialectic of the century.”

“It’s a way to cast yourself in the grand scheme of things,” guitarist Alex Hall says. “If you’re walking around during the day and having trouble appreciating anyone on the sidewalk, and you put on these records and see a commonality between you and human history – there’s something positive about that. That’s something Grails is trying to shed light on. It’s taught us the value of music.”

Over the course of eight tracks and 45 minutes, Deep Politics stands as an ambitious mix of compelling melodies and lush sounds bridged by new techniques, most notably an increased utilization of a cut-and-paste production style that’s commonly used by electronic and hip-hop artists.

“We’re not trying to imitate library music,” Amos says, referring to material that is written for film and media purposes and that often touches a range of emotions. “We’re just trying to break it down. It’s just a way to describe a jumping-off point.”

“Music history is one way we’ve learned to appreciate other human beings. We feel this perennial camaraderie with these weird people.”

It’s a point that gave rise to eight songs of concentrated inventiveness, informed not only by Ennio Morricone’s prolific Italian-western film scores but the disorienting 1960s psychedelia and heavy atmospherics for which the band, whose other half is composed of William Slater and Wm. Zak Riles, is essentially known.

For Hall, the Italian-western description is just a small glimpse into the record. “To me, honestly, it sounds like a mess,” he says. “But there are usually one or two tracks that have such a strong personality that they cast an umbrella over everything else.” He recalls Burning Off Impurities, an album from 2007 that the band was afraid would be slammed for being too heavily influenced by German rock, but in the end was ultimately labeled as a desert-psych record.

“When we listen to the record, we hear a reflection of our fucked-up psychology — the processing of these toxins we were dealing with at the time,” Amos says. “We definitely don’t hear the story everyone is hearing — the story of a saloon in the desert. Anyone starting with that much of a referential understanding of what they’re trying to make is just basically writing a college thesis.”

He meditates for a second. “It can be frustrating. I think we want to force people to deal with the sound and think for themselves, but unfortunately, sometimes people end up hearing a concept they thought about before, instead of hearing the raw expression. But people can call it homosexual-cowboy trip hop and it wouldn’t matter; we’re just thankful that people are listening to us.”

Perils of an instrumental band? Yes. Though the description “cinematic” is tired and overused, especially in the post-rock game, there is a certain truth about it when talking about Deep Politics. There are grand stretches of music when listeners will almost feel obligated to fill in the anecdotes. Soft instants swell into big moments seamlessly, a tension augmented by an opposing mishmash of acoustic and electric guitar intonations, soulful piano lines, East-meets-West melodies, and lush string accompaniments from the renowned Timba Harris (Estradasphere, Secret Chiefs 3).

From the first moments of opener “Future Primitive,” one gets a sense of the band’s signature demonic ambience hovering over the instruments. Suspiria-like layers of psychosis subtly crowd the musical space that is entranced by a heavy guitar riff, giving way to a pure-toned acoustic guitar that exudes the western motif. And while Harris’ presence as lone violinist is established here, so are disparate sounds; pounding drum beats meet heavy distortion and gloomy layers of background pressure.

Describing himself and Hall as the “matrix of post-rock,” Amos discloses their approach to the post-production sessions. “You’re hearing us hear our own boredom,” he says. “We want to live with the song’s creative process as long as possible, and that’s why our songs have so many weird layers. We want to hear something new happen, and we’ve learned to use the computer to excite our own ears.”

“Being an instrumental band, we’re very self-conscious about the danger of our music being boring,” Hall says. “It forces us to pack in the atmosphere and ambience. Though all the chill moments are deliberately there to cure our boredom, they still have to be engaging. We’re not a drone band that feels content with putting out 45 minutes of two notes.”

Grails’ strictly instrumental music gives instant payoffs all over the record. “All The Colors of the Dark” takes its overarching melody from Bruno Nicolai’s work in Sergio Martino’s 1972 giallo film of the same name, though it transforms it into a completely different being. The song’s brooding bit, dominated by a lone piano, traverses into a symphonic guitar assault, all the while keeping the same mood and composure.

Harris’ strings lift the whole affair into a standout track that takes on a classical guise. A perfect match in music sensibilities, what begins as a somber piano ballad turns into an endearing string symphony over a hard drum beat. It all begins to amplify a protagonist’s existential crisis in a film plot that ultimately is imaginary. “If you’re trying to create a Hitchcock movie, you have to evoke Bernard Herrmann,” Amos says. “And we were lucky enough to be put in touch with Timba by Randall Dunn.”

Harris, who can also be heard on the grand anti-finale of “Deep Snow,” has a way of creating depth and drama. “He has a lot of interesting ways to evoke full-out symphonies,” Hall says. “He came in at the right time, when we were making something grand and melancholy.”

The band more quietly experiments with the world of samples, employing the aforementioned cut-and-paste approach so cunningly at times that it’s impossible to tell where one source ends and another begins. This technique is readily apparent on “Corridors of Power,” an experimental track that sounds as if “Madlib contributed a song to Deep Politics,” Amos says. “We were trying to reduce our spectrum to drum machine and turntables. It was a way to come from a completely different angle but reach the same mood.”

“Almost Grew My Hair” provides a stark contrast as a powerhouse that begins the record’s grand descent, with three of the last songs averaging eight minutes each. Dense in range and reach, instruments begin to jumble, progressing through movement after movement with little respite. One moment of clarity leads to aggression in the next, heavy bass riffs draw back and forth, and focused guitar melodies spontaneously turn into nightmarish screeches.

“One of our favorite things about people like Morricone,” Amos says, “is that for the first time in the century, a respected master of musicology could employ instruments into his music just to evoke, for example, a schizophrenic killer who talks in a Donald Duck voice. What kind of music comes on the screen when he appears?”

Examining Morricone’s creative freedom ultimately sheds light on Grails’ music philosophy. Hall looks to the session players who actually played the music for inspiration. “You have these forms of music that were totally boxed in and completely framed with a context,” he says, “where most of the time you had these guys in the studio who just wanted to express themselves.”

Amos agrees, saying, “[These composers’ and musicians’] message to us is that there are literally no rules. When you seize that concept — that’s the most powerful moment you have. Most people are using music as though it’s a simple video game; they’re trying to reach an easy objective. But when you hear those masters, you perceive a higher level of freedom. Listening to those composers, you can see where we’re trying to get back to — how they seized those frontiers.”

Grails’ grand narrative, after all, is searching out those new musical frontiers. Deep Politics, yet another compelling synthesis of music past and present, continues the long-running investigation into the unknown.

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