Grails - Red Light
Modal music has had an important role throughout history yet an understated role in modern music, maybe even all music since around 1650. Before the notion of tonality had been roughly decided upon in the late Renaissance to early Baroque period of music history, all the preceding music had been modal, that is based off of the seven church modes, which in turn were based off of the initial Greek modes dating back to the time of just about that whole Jesus thing. And while all music predating the Baroque period was modal as we describe it in retrospect, in modern music, modal music is scarcer, and considered somehow more exotic to use in say, guitar soloing. Whether it's the near-famous use of D Dorian and quartal harmonies in Miles Davis' "So What," or the use of G Mixolydian on the Brokeback Mountain Theme song, modes are used for inflection, taste, and style. They lend something consonant but slightly off-center that can make songs incredibly memorable, but also can make them opaque and difficult to resolve.
One genre that feels almost completely rooted in tonal music is post-rock. Whether its the bright major keys of Explosions in the Sky, or the darker, sadder minor key sounds of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, post-rock bands, who like to get into a solid groove on a simple theme, certainly delve narrowly into the major and minor keys. However, those themselves are modes (Ionian and Aeolian respectively) that had just been popularized around 1650. The band Grails, though they typically avoid the darker flatted second sounds of the Phrygian and the theoretical Locrian modes, are a post-rock band who embrace the Lydian, Dorian, and Mixolydian modes as melodic foundations for their grooves. Their themes are rooted as much in those three scales as they are in the more expected Ionian and Aeolian scales. In fact, Grails often shifts across those keys through the course of their songs, producing interesting modal mixtures in the truest sense of the term. The result is that their songs have a wider range of sounds that makes the album Red Light
elusive and intriguing beyond the normal trappings of the genre.
On paper this sounds great and fresh, but in execution there are some obstacles. All three of the non-standard modes featured by Grails on this album, and particularly the Mixolydian scale, find themselves very prominently in two genres of music: showtunes and folk (I'm talking like classical folk not Simon and Garfunkel). Now, when you shove those sounds into a niche genre, the results aren't always so enticing. Many times, when Grails is playing very somberly or seriously, the actual melody they'll be playing will be a goofy one that invokes and Irish folk jig, or a jangly showtunes piece, which are two huge aesthetic problems with this album. Songs like the opener "Dargai" and "Alms" both sound like a terrible mix of Calexico, Explosions in the Sky, and the Brokeback theme. There's a weird, light, western folk quality to them that harshly abrades against the sullen post-rock qualities of the song. The end result of this clashing is usually negative, though sometimes succeeds like on "New Lystra," which taps in to the slow, soft major scale sound that introduces a lot of Explosions in the Sky songs.
However, these negative traits only hamper a few songs. More often than not, the songs don't sound goofy in their modal inflections, thanks to their ability to move around between the multiple modes. Also, the songs, though post-rock are surprisingly non-repetitive, though they are slow to evolve. This means that if you don't particularly like the feel of one section, it typically won't come back to haunt a song. More positive points come from the production of the album. The tones here are wonderful. They're typically clear and sonorous, giving a strong ambience of calm, clarity, and strength, to the album. Also, at key moments where the songs shift to dissonant chords from distant modes, Grails will give a little distortion at the pivotal moment to make them more poignant. it's sort of like screaming at a crescendo, but for an instrumental band.
At the end of the day, even if you can't stand the general sound of Calexico or modal music or post-rock or whatever, in Grails there is a cool combination such that at its darkest it can sound like Toby Driver but at its lightest sound like a folk ballad, and yet it can appeal to anybody with milder tastes at the same time. There is something for everyone streamlined through a post-rock filter. The album doesn't feel shockingly diverse, or like it has huge highs and lows, but merely the allure of modal mixture, which when thrown around in an unexpected genre can produce interesting results. Don't expect the most dramatic and beautiful post-rock album ever, but recognize that you're entering a tangential band that maintains its own set of songwriting devices, instead of those typical of their genre. They deserve respect for exploring something new, though this album falls short of being truly great.
Recommended Tracks: Tracks 4-7 are absolutely GOLDEN