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Grails - The Burden of Hope

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Artist: Grails

Album: The Burden of Hope

Label: Neurot

Review date: Mar. 1, 2004

A mysterious collective apparently rooted on the West Coast (Portland, to be specific) but comprised of players from across the U.S., Grails (known as Laurel Canyon on their first two EPs) inhabit a space similar to that shared by the Jeweled Antler Collective and Godspeed! You Black Emperor. It must be a pain to make instrumental music influenced equally by heavy rock, ambient, and improvisation, because the above comparisons are all but inevitable. But rest assured, Grails stand out from the pack and stand on their own.

For starters, what is one to make of the album’s title? Well in some ways it captures the mood which dominates the album, one which seems to reveal a ragged, weary grace struggling to make its way through a cloud of melancholy. The music is wide-open, with a warm analog sound that fits the songs quite well. The loose, pliable rhythm play often sets up a frame for the merging of ringing guitars with Timothy Horner’s wonderfully ragged violin (in many ways the lead voice). The music shifts almost subliminally between open, emphatic melodicism and unapologetic explorations of texture. And all the while there is an extreme dynamism and acute awareness of pacing and drama (William Slater’s multi-instrumentalism – bass and keyboards mostly – is key here). Guitarists Zak Riles and Alex Hall play in a fairly unadorned fashion, with a nearly naked tone that suits their arpeggiating and strumming. There is one particularly exquisite moment when Emil Amos’ softly pattering brushes frame a gorgeous chordal sequence as the other guitarist simply lets his instrument feed back. It’s a moment of perfect consonance, almost like extraterrestrial folk music. Perhaps even more beautiful is the heartbreaking final track, “Canyon Hymn,” built around a repeating minimalist interval. Best of all, though, is the incredible cover of the Sun City Girls’ epic “Space Prophet Dogon,” a glorious appearance in the middle of the record.

I’ve listened to this record over and over again; it’s been a key part of my life’s soundtrack for the last couple months. As immediate as the music is each time I listen, it nonetheless lingers on long after the listening’s done, much like a dream you can’t shake upon waking. The fact that this enigmatic recording is on Neurot – home to the mighty Neurosis and fellow wanderers – tells you something about their sense of mood, drama, introspection and gift for arranging. Many of the tracks blend together with the kind of conjunction of the ethereal and the earthy, and this consistent feel also gives the album the feel of a suite. While it possesses something of the shimmering quality of Stars of the Lid, the grittiness of Dirty Three, and the enigmatic genre blending of Wechsel Garland, Grails music is singular. Each time I listen, I keep coming back to the following image: a small band of wandering refugees from a once-proud empire, winding their way through some kind of exile and, through these touching songs, reconnecting to their sense of dignity or experiencing newfound resoluteness. The power of restraint – both in the absence of vocals and the economy of the music – is evident throughout this gorgeous recording.

By Jason Bivins

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