Grails aren’t post-rock, they’re post-genre. The Portland-based instrumental collective draws no arbitrary lines between stylistic choices. If there’s an approach worth taking, they’ll find a way to do so, whether it’s freely floating ambience or doom-metal heaviness, spaced-out synth pop or string-laden, screen-less film scoring. The farther from their earlier recordings they get, the wider their sound spreads, seeping into the farthest corners of obscure art ephemera or simply banging out a killer riff. There’s no reason for the band to discriminate between the two; they make music that tells its story through richly emotional melodic songwriting rather than by allegiance to a sound.
For new album Chalice Hymnal, it helps that Grails has been on its members’ respective backburners for six years. After 2011′s Deep Politics, Grails co-found Emil Amos released an album with meditative doom metallers Om and four with his lo-fi folk project Holy Sons. Amos also joined his songwriting partner in Grails, Alex Hall, for a series of instrumental, hip-hop-influenced records under the name Lilacs and Champagne. So while this project, itself, took some time off, its members certainly did not. They did, however, bring back a lot of new ideas to the table on new album Chalice Hymnal, a record that sounds simultaneously like the band’s most diverse and most accessible yet.
I’ll stop short of calling Chalice Hymnal “catchy.” With no choruses to speak of and no lyrics, that’s a hard thing to pull off. But while Grails have never been a slow-burn in the vein of Mogwai, cryptically abstract like Godspeed You! Black Emperor or, on the other hand, heroic like Explosions in the Sky, they’ve never been a difficult band. With their new batch of 11 mostly concise tracks on Chalice Hymnal, Grails deliver a consistently interesting, ever-shifting mixtape of styles that more than makes up for their relatively long absence. From the start, with the title track, the group finds a solid groove, blending dub, funk and psychedelia—with some outstanding saxophone texture tracing the edges—showing off in one four-minute shot just how eclectic their influences are. That transitions quickly into the tense, Knight Rider synthwave of “Pelham,” the blissful dream-ambient of “Empty Chamber” and the heavy psychedelic rock of “New Prague.” At first listen, they might all sound like the works of different bands, yet the way in which they all bleed together, suffused with an overarching melodic sensibility toward the mystical and triumphant, makes even their seemingly least-connected songs feel of a piece.
The six-year break leading up to Chalice Hymnal was long enough that Grails likely could have done whatever they wanted with this release, either as a reaction to or in spite of their past releases, and it would have been just fine. Yet in featuring a track on the album titled “Deeper Politics,” they draw a pretty bold line back to their past work, if only for a fleeting moment. That track’s orchestral, cinematic grandeur and haunted passages is similar to their previous album’s title track, and for that matter one of this record’s highlights. But it’s just one piece of a kaleidoscopic and multi-colored whole that comes together in strange, always intriguing ways. There’s seemingly nothing that Grails won’t do in the context of their powerfully executed soundscapes. Nor is there anything they shouldn’t try out; if history is a guide, they’ll find a way to turn it into something sublime.