Chalice Hymnal by GrailsRelease date: February 17, 2017
Label: Temporary Residence
It’s curious that in their nigh on 15 year career Grails haven’t been commissioned to soundtrack a movie. Even on their earliest works, back when they were lumped in with the burgeoning post-rock scene, they lived up to the oft-repeated cliche of ‘soundtrack for an imaginary movie’ better than any of their erstwhile peers. As they developed, accumulating and shedding influences, weaving East Asian melodies in with desert rock and a healthy dose of European psychedelia into their sound, they’ve only became more cinematic in scope. By the time of 2011’s Deep Politics Grails were overtly channeling soundtrack composers, drawing on the majesty and drama of Ennio Morricone and Italian Giallo soundtrack legends, demonstrating a chameleon-like quality to become whatever kind of band they needed to be to nail a specific mood. That they’ve not been roped in by some switched on filmmaker to make a soundtrack of their own is something of a crime.
The case gets even more curious when you listen to the project that has kept 2 of their core members, Emil Amos and Alex Hall, busy in the 5 years since their last outing: Lilacs & Champagne. A bricolage of moody instrumental hip hop, eerie electronica and samples taken from assorted pieces of pop culture detritus their songs almost all sound like the theme from some late night movie you half remember but can’t seem to track down. It’s not surprising that the sounds explored by Lilacs & Champagne should have seeped into Grails’ first full length in half a decade, though those who haven’t paid much attention to their extracurricular activities might be taken aback to how far they’ve strayed from the jam band wanderlust of their earlier works. The wall between the projects – as well as the one between their typically more experimental Black Tar Prophecies EPs and their more conventional albums proper – appear to have been torn down, to the point that ‘Empty Chamber,’ with it’s muted hip hop beats and cut-up, reverb-saturated vocal refrain, sounds like a straight up offcut from an L&C record. Chalice Hymnal is the first Grails album that doesn’t feel like the work of a band but of a collective of like-minded composers.
The results are perhaps Grails’ most cinematic work yet, and the furthest removed from notions of rock (post or otherwise). The opener and title track. ‘Chalice Hymnal’ sets the tone – all sleazy, neon drenched synth, lurid sax and the kind of guitar solos taste forgot. It sounds like it’s been carved straight out of some lost 80s b-movie’s opening sequence; you can imagine the credits flashing up over a nighttime street scene shot through a car windscreen, streetlights streaked through the raindrops smeared on the glass. ‘Pelham’ has a sort of Bullit-esque chase scene vibe, all urgent hi-hat and pulsing bassy synth, bringing to mind images of spies stalking the streets at night in occupied territory, full of suspense and danger. Stuff like this is catnip for soundtrack aficionados and mental cinematographers alike, but it’s a fair leap from the still rock-band oriented work they’re better known for.
And it’s not always as thrilling. Listeners to Amos’ excellent ‘Drifters Sympathy’ podcast will be able to spot the influences drawn on – unsung b-movie soundtrack composers Ivor Slaney and Roberto Donati along with the more celebrated Popol Vuh and Tangerine Dream. When they lean too hard into these influences in the middle of the record things run aground somewhat. ‘Rebecca’ with it’s shimmering new age vibe, is lushly arranged and would make for excellent background music, but while a film soundtrack can be forgiven for lapsing into sonic wallpaper a stand-alone album doesn’t have that luxury. ‘The Moth and the Flame’ might take on an interesting feel if juxtaposed with some grisly grindhouse murder scene but on it’s own it slips mildly away. They’re fine examples of mood crafting but don’t really do much to keep the attention of the listener.
They have more success when updating earlier versions of themselves. ‘Deeper Politics,’ as the title suggests, continues the thread of Deep Politics, full of doomed romance and wounded drama, displaying impressive poise in it’s elegant and elegiac tableaux of piano and strings. ‘New Prague’ is a straight up Grails narcotic jam – if there were such a things as bread-and-butter Grails this would be it. It wouldn’t sound out of place on Doomsdayers Holiday or Take Refuge in Clean Living, with it’s filthy low end and boisterous wah-riff refrain. On this and ‘Thorns II,’ a downbeat acoustic number awash with muted psychedelic flourishes and incredible drum work from Amos, they remind us that on a purely technical level Grails have become incredible musicians over the years. There’s so much sequencing and synth mood music elsewhere it feels like they’re burying the lead somewhat – when they play as a band they’re still an utterly thrilling proposition.
Grails have taken on many guises over the years, from the quasi-mystics to druggy auteurs to pysch/prog masters. Chalice Hymnal is perhaps their final form, casting the band in their true light – as deep crate diggers who’ve erased all sense of boundaries, playing musical ‘what if?’ with themselves, using the recording studio as a time machine to other times and places in musical history. As their tentacles stretch further into esoterica, and they veer away from their leftfield rock band roots, the hit/miss ratio for any given listener is bound to drop. But more than ever they’re guaranteeing to take you to places you’ve likely never been, crafting their own aural short movies, whole worlds in 5 minutes or less, ones so richly imagined that you could run away and live in them.