By Jake Murray
Digital information is a very fragile thing. While the whole world battles it out for the freedom to digital privacy against evil spy-nations, this story is actually about digital dependance. Anybody who uses their computer for any sort of work knows the words "back-up" [!] and "data-loss" [!!!] all too well, and in turn, their importance in a world based on storing important information as something so completely intangible as digital data. I personally remember one harrowing incident working on a short film in which I lost a full 13-hour day's work (the back-up vanished too) like a puff of smoke - poof - gone. Sadly, Grails encountered a similar, much worse issue during the production of their latest release Black Tar Prophecies: Vols 4, 5 & 6. Around February 2012 it was announced that the hard-drive containing "our next few records" had died and had to be sent to a retrieval company, which summed up to a whopping $2400; kicking off a huge crowd-sourcing fundraiser selling off various precious rarities to fund the data retrieval. To cut a long story short, the disk was saved and we were treated in the end with the new music from the pipeline; after my own experience with data loss, whilst working on my band's album last year I had 3 separate back-ups at any one time. I'm quite confident that after what they went through, Grails probably now do too.
Lurching in with mutated lyrics from an old redemption song, "nobody knows the trouble I've seen" the album kicks off with an ironic twinge, knowing the back-story… but hey, nothing as bad as the poor folk who penned the original, I'm sure. 'I Want A New Drug' is a soundscape exercise, not too distant from what Alice may have heard while tumbling down the rabbit hole. Just as quickly as Alice tumbles down though, the band rises up with some Pink Floyd-like ascending guitar scales and grooves in 'Self-Hypnosis' and immediately asserts, once again, the difference between Grails and every other instrumental big-boy: it's that jammy groove that just doesn't exist with the same sincerity anymore. Treading the line between Floyd's 'Echoes' and their own masterpiece Burning Off Impurities, the track truly displays what an opener can be.
Another common distinction made between this group and your Mogwais and your Godspeeds is this geographical diversity, or what I shall now pen as "musical anthropology", because I'm a fucking snob. It cannot be denied that this group have stretched a large terrain, with Burning off The Impurities covering all things "eastern" while Doomsdayers Holiday is swampy and southern-American sounding. It doesn't just end here. As mentioned, this new album begins in a similar vein to 'Burning Off' but soon begins to shape itself to something more like a wild west acid trip: cowboys with tentacles for heads and zombie monsters digging themselves up from the sandy ground. 'Wake Up Drill II' (sequel to earlier Black Tar Vol 1 track 'Belgian Wake-Up Drill') is a prime example, as is the one-harmonica-short-of-a-cattledrive 'Chariots'. 'Up All Night' is a steamy piece that could only by described as how you might imagine a sex scene in a movie, if the score was written by Clint Mansell. Take that as you will.
Breaking halfway with 'New Drug II' - another trippy, drippy fall further down the rabbit hole - and we're into Volumes 5 & 6 (volume 6 is made of three tracks, mixed in amongst volume 5). 'A Mansion Has Many Rooms' is brilliantly spooky and thoroughly enjoyable - a little like watching a skeleton play a honky-tonk. 'Corridors of Power III' is another sound-track-ready piece, driven by a demanding drumbeat and a fuzzy guitar lead. Pizzicato strings and layers of dense space swell and bulge, moving upwards towards a distant crescendo that, instead of ever paying off, annoyingly cuts and drops out. In a good way, although after 4 minutes of satisfying build-up it's hard not to expect some sort of explosion - but this band is not one for meeting norms and expectations. With 'Ice Station Zebra' we find the group at the bottom of a canyon, in a similar desert-sounding fashion as before: brooding, plodding synths and cowboy-styley acoustic guitar. You could draw similarities to Date Palms, but mostly it still just sounds like Grails. A similar thing could also be said for the album's closer, 'Penalty Box': a deep thick atmosphere swirls around, while steady beats trudge with grit and far off ring-modulators distort the space into a vivid summary of the entire compilation, as a blurry smog-laden desert trip.
Black Tar Prophecies Vols 4, 5 & 6 mark another step in the continuing idea-convoy that is now 6 chapters long. The compilations don't necessarily form wholly defined ideas or albums, but never fail to entertain and impress. While this collection could be read as thematically repetitive, it also carefully tip-toes between one or two set sounds and forms an overall image of where Grails have been for the last year or so. Traditionally the band has, as previously mentioned, moved from one style or form to another with each album, yet always carried a certain tone with them. One thing that can always be said for the BTP anthologies is that they hold a more defined sound of what the band is at the time of release, whereas a full-length album from these alien-vaqueros could be completely set on one theme and timbre; it'd still be Grails but might not be what you were expecting. In the same way, if you're someone who discovered the group during their "heavier" days in Doomsdayer's Holiday, or in the exploratory eastern Burning Off Impurities, this might not be for you (or at least it won't be what you're expecting). Instead you might want to pick up Deep Politics or, better yet, the first collection of Black Tar Prophecies Vols 1, 2 & 3. Frankly, I'm just happy to have more Grails in my life because the world was a dry, sober place without them and that's just boring.