Grails: Dug In Deep

After releasing their first two albums on Neurot, Portland, Oregon instrumental unit Grails began their association with Temporary Residence by appearing on the avant Black Sabbath tribute Everything Comes And Goes, covering the mother of all doom tracks, “Black Sabbath.” The newly-issued Deep Politics is Grails’ third full-length since then, and their sixth overall, if you count the EP compilation Black Tar Prophecies Vols. 1, 2 & 3 on Important Records. From their 2003 The Burden Of Hope full-length debut through 2008’s two LPs, Take Refuge In Clean Living and Doomsdayer’s Holiday, Grails had a remarkably prolific period, and though they released the Acid Rain DVD in 2009 and the fourth Black Tar Prophecies came out in 2010 (Vol. 5 is impending), the last couple years hasn’t found them nearly as present on the road or keeping the same level of productivity in terms of releases. That’s owed in no small part to drummer Emil Amos joining Om as the second half of the duo with Al Cisneros (Sleep, Shrinebuilder), as well as releasing solo material under the moniker Holy Sons, but he’s not the only one. Guitarist Zak Riles has also released an accomplished, meditative solo album, and toured with Portland singer-songwriter M. Ward. The effect all this has had is that the Grails of 2011 is a completely different animal.

Maybe that’s disingenuous. Grails has always shown diversity on their releases, beginning with The Burden Of Hope and developing almost immediately an ethic for genre-transcendence on the 2004 follow-up, Redlight. On Deep Politics, however, the breadth of their creativity expands to bounds that are simply beyond anything they’ve ever done before. There are two sides to that. By reaching into new areas of sound, exploring (boldly) new influences, Grails today literally and physically cannot do what they’ve done before. I’d say this might disappoint some followers of the band, but I think if you’ve managed to stick it out this far with Grails, you probably expect something different each time out, and the sound the four-piece concoct on Deep Politics should be a boon to almost anyone who approaches it with an open mind. Their penchant for rich, contemplative atmospherics—a kind of think-thinky aural darkness—continues to run through the music, but across songs like the extended “I Led Three Lives” or the earlier “Corridors Of Power,” Grails—the lineup completed by guitarist Alex Hall and bassist/pianist William Slater—bring in elements of dub and synthesized orchestration to affect an ambience like none they’ve experimented with previously. Beats back Native American flute sounds on “Corridors of Power,” which is a direct change from the lush and more organic build of opener “Future Primitive”—a manic guitar line running underneath like some kind of heart monitor—and the more piano- and guitar-driven reinterpretation of Morricone compatriot Bruno Nicolai’s “All The Colors Of The Dark” score, from the 1972 film of the same name.

Immediately, Deep Politics surges with confidence and self-awareness. The title-track, led into by “Corridors Of Power,” seethes with longing that comes through Slater’s piano work—so much so that about two minutes in, the music stops and Amos reintroduces it on drums, as though the song itself, said, “Oh, what’s the point?” and tried to shut itself down. String-sounds texture “Deep Politics,” as they do much of the album, and there’s an acute sense of melody and rhythm in the guitars that feels more based in jazz than rock. “Deep Politics” is built from, the piano line, but in its later moments, it’s the strings that come to the fore, and it’s probably the most gorgeous realization to come from Grails to date, complemented by the shorter side A closer, “Daughters Of Bilitis,” which seems to blend all the elements together: the electronic beats, the synth strings, the guitar and piano. It’s shorter than the title cut, and something of a comedown on the CD, but it makes sense thinking in terms of a vinyl release, which Grails always seem to do.

Side B fades up with the extended “Almost Grew My Hair.” Each of the three final tracks on Deep Politics is over seven minutes long, and like good literature, “Almost Grew My Hair” tells you almost immediately how to read it, introducing its evocative central guitar figure and then literally pausing to let it sink in. On a songwriting level, it’s one of Grails’ most memorable compositions, with interplay between electric and acoustic guitar, relatively straightforward drumming from Amos, and a nod to the more rock-minded ethic of their earlier work that doesn’t retread at all or come off as purposefully simple. There’s a break in the middle of the song where the bass comes in to build a jamming kind of structure, and you almost forget about that guitar figure until a minute and a half-later, when the electric guitar lead touches on it and after that, when synth voices reignite it for the track’s close. It’s here that Grails show their strength lies not just in arrangement or including off-kilter instrumentation or making unexpected turns, but that they can genuinely compose a piece of music around a solid line without losing sight of where they started out from. This ability, which I’m not even sure was present on Doomsdayer’s Holiday or Take Refuge In Clean Living, sets Grails absolutely apart from the bulk of instrumentalists out there today, who are either geared toward unhinged jams or songs that follow verse/chorus patterns and seem like they just forgot about the words to fill the spots.

“I Led Three Lives” returns to some of the cinematic feel of Deep Politics’ opening half, but as it’s the longest cut at 8:49, there’s plenty of space within it for Riles, Hall, Amos and Slater to navigate and capitalize on the underlying tension in the quieter moments. At 4:43, Amos lands heavy on his crash cymbal and the song reaches what would seem to be its apex, but it’s short and I’m left wanting more. It seems like they could have given the whole album a real crescendo there, and instead, they cut away from it too quickly. Granted, they return a minute later, but even then they don’t ride the part out as they could. I know it’s not a doom record and it’s not supposed to be, that Grails are going for an entirely different aesthetic, just that they seem to be reaching for a hair-standing-on-end moment, and “I Led Three Lives” stops just short of really opening up sonically the way it should. As the song closes with washes of synth noise, I feel like in listening to it, I should be tired from what I just heard, where instead, the anxiety of the track’s earlier parts remains unresolved.

They tackle some Earth-style Americana (more active, obviously) on closer “Deep Snow,” with both acoustic and electric guitar playing out a Western feel that builds and drops and ends quietly, closing Deep Politics with an appropriately thoughtful feel. The disparate influences at work on the sides notwithstanding, the overall flow of the record is noteworthy. In hearing it, one can be through the title-track before realizing they’ve moved past “Future Primitive.” Likewise, one can also sit and try and hear every subtlety Grails present (that’ll keep you busy for a while). Either way, what comes out of it is the notion that Grails’ time “apart” was not misspent, and that the band has returned with a studio release that much stronger for the members’ sundry divergences. I don’t know if they’re going to pick back up with doing more than one release a year from here on out—I can’t help but think they’d have it rough topping themselves in such a short amount of time—but Deep Politics is a righteous and textured return from a band whose creativity seems to be limitless and almost completely without genre. The next one will probably be completely different, and that’s just fine. After Deep Politics, I’m pretty sure Grails could take on whatever they want and come out of it on top.

Grails’ Deep Politics is available now on Temporary Residence. Grails hit Kung Fu Necktie in Philadelphia on April 23 and the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn on April 24. More info at

JJ Koczan’s politics aren’t nearly so deep, but what they lack in that, they make up for in loud. It’s the American way.