Most bands respond to the loss (or in the case of Grails, disappearance) of a band member by either breaking up or employing a new musician to fill the recently vacated slot. Grails responded with The Black Tar Prophecies Volumes 1, 2 &3, an album revealing a group with (at the time unrealized) genre-expanding aspirations. The band’s fourth and latest, Burning Off Impurities, is that realization. Portland’s Grails have taken the road less traveled with the conception of their latest long-player, and in the absence of missing violinist Timothy Horner created a dizzying array of world music inspired post-rock. But this is not your older, (more esoteric) brother’s usual instrumental fair. This is the sound of waking up cold and alone in the dessert, not knowing how you got there, while a maddening soundtrack spells out your peril.
With a smattering of Will Sergeant’s guitar and the psychedelic tendencies of The Doors debut (in particular “The End”), Grails have evolved past contemporaries to such an extent that their post-rock brethren will be playing catch up for some time. Even the infallible classifier that is iTunes opted to place the album under the genre of “unclassifiable,” and it couldn’t be closer to the mark. Textures are organic and highly influenced by traditional Middle-Eastern music. “Soft Temple” is that inevitable coming-to, wiping the crust from bleary eyes and wrapping one’s head around unfamiliar surroundings. Tambourine and low drum thrumming emerge on the horizon while sitar stirs you from your stupor. And somewhere, a piano soothes your aching head.
The journey has begun.
Harpsichord rings over the sounds of a rainstorm and a tribal drum progression in “More Extinction,” as you begin to gather your bearings. Still, an uncertain danger lurks nearby. “Silk Rd” is the frantic chase across the dunes, as further down the rabbit hole you descend. Guitars amble while the percussion takes the mind through that vast expanse of instrumental anticipation. Curiouser and curiouser indeed.
Somewhere along the dusty track, “Drawn Curtains” rattles with a mournful harmonica caught on the stifling breeze and it is here, if not sooner, that you resign yourself to your fate, lost in a sonic landscape of strange exhilaration. Fans of Mono and Mogwai will find much to love here, if ever they can find their way back to their precious CD collections on the other side of the abyss. By the time you step up to the “Outer Banks,” covered in dirt and sweat, the acoustic guitar styling of “Dead Vine Blues” (sounding like a Six Organs of Admittance outtake), your disorientation and elation will be nearly complete. But not before enduring the loping stride of “Origin-ing,” (and the return of that ghostly harmonica). Assuming you survive all this, your journey will not be complete without “Burning Off Impurities,” an initially gentle return that coalesces in brass and string textures by the triumphant absolution, while you are left wide-eyed and breathless.
I have a friend who, when I ask him what new music he’s been listening to lately, replies simply, “I’ve been listening to a lot of music without words.” And I think now, I finally understand why. Once you’ve placed your lips to the edge of the grail and taken that first sip, there is no returning to the pop playgrounds of yesterday, and your journey has really only just begun.