There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
By now, the term “post-rock” can safely be consigned to the junk heap of history, along with “alternative” and “Islamofascism.” So how to describe the music of Grails, a Portland, Ore., act that trades in moody, long-form instrumentals? Chamber-doom? Neo-cinematic? At its formation, the band was lumped into the avant-metal category, somewhere between the fussy prog of Isis and the nihilistic squall of Neurosis. Several releases later, Grails have settled on a style more informed by Ennio Morricone than Mastodon. With immersive compositions and muscular, if restrained, musicianship, their latest, Deep Politics, further refines the expansive sound hinted at on efforts like the Black Tar Prophecies series. Like fellow travelers Kayo Dot, Grails are redefining “heavy” through a smart synthesis of beauty and ballast, and the result is as gripping as it is evocative.
Opener “Future Primitive” establishes the album’s template, with ominous strings and a shuddering, cyclical bass riff soon joined by spaghetti-twang guitar and impish violin. Whereas musical forebears Godspeed! You Black Emperor would have pushed toward a cacophonous crescendo, Grails stick to a modular approach, introducing subtle elements to sustain the ominous mood.
The East-meets-Western soundscapes continue with “All the Colors of the Dark,” which is reminiscent of John Zorn’s sunstroke classic The Big Gundown, a twisted Morricone tribute. Both compositions evoke a big sky, but Grails’ is pregnant with storm clouds.
“Corridors of Power” offers a brief respite from the sour tidings, but it’s also the weakest track on Deep Politics. Here, Grails stumble into a mystical rainforest, replete with Gheorghe Zamfir-esque pan pipes and ambient synths jacked from late-period Tangerine Dream. They regain their footing with the title track, however, which features the kind of gauzy piano Thom Yorke is so fond of warbling over. Maybe someone can do a mash-up.
There are a couple of indirect nods to Black Sabbath on “Almost Grew My Hair,” which boasts a stinging guitar figure reminiscent of Tony Iommi’s solo in “Fairies Wear Boots.” Likewise, “I Led Three Lives” owes something to Animals-era Pink Floyd, particularly the throbbing bass line and paint-peeling axework. It’s derivative, perhaps, but not offensively so. Besides, it’s called classic rock for a reason.
It’s challenging to maintain attention over a full-length album’s worth of downtempo instrumentals, and it is to Grails’ enormous credit that the majority of Deep Politics sticks. The band may not have fully transcended its influences, but it’s keen at incorporating them in a way that draws focus to their chief strength, ensemble performance. If there is a through line on Grails’ latest, it is a certain kind of film music. Someone should introduce Grails to David Fincher—this stuff would fit well with the director’s upcoming adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Trent Reznor can’t have all the cake. Until there’s a proper movie pairing, you’ll have to settle for a blacklight and your imagination.