Review Summary: Acid-tinged 70s prog meets modern post-rock with a little help from transplanted non-Western musical stylings.Grails - Doomsdayer's Holiday
Grails' 2004 release Redlight
was a masterclass in concise, efficacious songwriting. Grails were a post-rock band churning out complete, three-minute mini-epics. As far as I know, their ability to craft a startling instrumental crescendo without the benefit of minutes upon minutes of e-bowing and ambient background vocals hasn't been matched by other comparable bands in the same genre to this day. The other part of Redlight
that was so compelling was Grails' experimentation with less common modalities and modal mixture. The songs had a melodic and harmonic flavor that transcended the typical major and minor tonalities that Sigur Ros and Explosions in the Sky had milked for the preceding ten years. In fact this style transcended Western modality, giving way to a few melodic glimpses that felt exotic or special in the context of modern rock orchestration. In the concise, efficient context of Grails' careful songwriting, these steps felt modest and carefully applied. On Grails next formal LP, 2007's Burning Off Impurities
, Grails traded in concision for creating extended vamps and jams, and as a result the tinges of exoticism that enlivened Redlight
ran wild, and in fact, became the central focus with 'sploitation song titles like "Silk Road" that featured blatant pentatonic melodies and instrumentation meant to invoke non-Western musical traditions. Grails went from being soft-spoken post-rock geniuses to loud-mouthed, jam band deadheads.
Grails' most recent album (skipping the continued exotic meanderings of this year's Take Refuge in Clean Living
) is Doomsdayer's Holiday
, an album that seems to find a wonderful common ground between the simple profundity of Redlight
and the bombastic psychedelia of Burning Off Impurities
. The album is seven beefy tracks that all enjoy experimenting with non-Western sounds and flavors but aren't swirling, free-form jams. "Reincarnation Blues" does what its name suggests, mixing blues scale bass lines, slide guitar, and a heavy groove with guitar chords and violin melodies that ape sitar tones. The union is made all the better by a delicate sense of cross-pollination; the guitar lines are clean-tone and ambient during the pensive, exoticized sections, but are fuzzed out during the heavier sections, while playing the same melodies, elegantly bridging the two disparate sections of the song, as well as the two different musical traditions. "Predestination Blues" functions similarly, offering a double-reeded instrument that sounds like a nay playing in unison with a distorted guitar. As a result the main melody is neither contrived in its chinoiserie or bland in its pentatonic rock and roll. The dulcimer sounds locking step with the bass only drives the point home. Flutes, dulcimer, harmonica, ambient electric guitar, and acoustic guitar blend in a similar fashion on "The Natural Man." Other songs stray away from the obvious exoticism of inserting foreign instrumentation and capture eclecticism simply by the interesting harmonic and melodic choices. "Doomsdayer's Holiday" and "Acid Rain" aren't striking for their instrumentation, as guitar rules, but use modality with the positive results that recall Redlight
. "Acid Rain," my favorite track on the album, feels like an update of Pink Floyd's ambient classic rock. There is something divine about its mixture of 70s prog and 00s post-rock. Some songs are just their own idiosyncratic beasts though. "Immediate Man," arguably the most jam-based track on the album, revolves around a simple bass line but goes completely left-field with the production and song structure. "X-Contaminators" starts off as a noise track and finds itself halfway through with distorted guitar and violin that swirls around in another open-ended, production-centric track.
All of these delicate balances between the oriental and the occidental would be moot if not for the reigned-in songwriting. As mentioned earlier, some tracks wander and feel like improvisations (a nice variation but inferior substitute for the taut mini-masterpiece) more than anything. Excepting those two songs, the album contains effectual songwriting. "Acid Rain" blends in and out of pulsing psychedelic rock sections with ease. "The Natural Man" is a lesson in escalation; it builds its main melodic gesture out of playful riffing in accompanying instruments until it blares out the triumphant main melody. Even moments that seem loose and open-ended as a passage function well in terms of their placement within a song. The ambient noodling at the end of "Reincarnation Blues" is the contrast to the heavy, dense, and taut riffing of the first half of the song, giving a controlled balance to the track. If Grails goes awry at any point it's because their transition tactics become stale. Most of the songs segue very loosely between sections that have a definite pulse and a memorable melody by dissolving the groove and tension into ambient passages, just to rebuild it. The result is that the listener feels as if (s)he is slipping in and out of different dream sequences, some fantastical and awesome, and others forgettable and opaque. The album shapeshifts and morphs throughout its 37 minutes, which is both to its success and detriment. When the album is on, its enrapturing, when it's not, the listener is just floating with the current waiting for the next moment of bliss. Doomsdayer's Holiday
is certainly a step in the right direction in terms of balancing the eclecticism that marred Burning Off Impurities
, and it has some amazing moments, but the album as a whole is too nebulous to be complete nirvana.