Review Summary: Instead of concise post-rock gems, Grails expands into world-infused jams. The result is lackluster, excepting some moments of interesting experimentation. Beware of the hamhanded Middle Eastern influences, too.
My experience with Grails' last proper LP Red Light
has been an interesting one. At first I rejected its use of folk sounds and unexpected modes, but then after hearing them employed well in the middle stretch of the album, I was won over. It wasn't that the modal choices in the middle were better or anything, it's just that the middle few songs are written so transcendently well, that their modalities are rendered all the more wonderful and memorable. I really liked how on select songs Grails were less of a post-rock band, striving to produce epic, building crescendos, and more of a songwriter's wet dream; the song structure was non-repeating, with each section being memorable on its own, all while contributing to the arc of the song as a whole. On those songs, they owned their craft, which in turn prevented their odd dabblings in modes and folk music from owning them.
The story behind Burning Off Impurities
, unfortunately, seems to be the opposite. Gone are the wonderful non-repeating and serendipitously unpredictable songs of Red Light
, and in its place are extensive, world-infused jams. Here, the odd dabblings take over. Firstly, the song structures can be very frustrating. The songs all evolve in a more archetypal post-rock fashion. Themes are introduced early on in a calm and reserved fashion, all in order to slowly evolve amongst the growing textures and dynamics. I'll concede: that's pretty cool. Part of post-rock's allure is such a design, but after all of the epic, grandiose post-rock that has been established in the past 10 years. It would be nice to hear more of the variety and ingenuity found on Red Light
. Burning Off Impurities
seems to fulfill the declaration of its title; its overall structure is a reversion to the post-rock of old.
However, this seeming backtracking is convoluted by Grails' fondness of interesting modes and folk sounds. On Red Light
, the main folk influences came from the North American and British Isles tradition. The more incongruous sounds on the album were either rustic and American or jaunty and Irish. Here, from the first track in fact, we are introduced to sounds from farther East. Grails seems to be engaging in some old-fashioned chinoiserie, but favoring Indian drone sounds, Middle Eastern augmented seconds, and a variety of Eastern sounding textures and tones. The result is that the post-rock epics are rendered into psychedelic jams that borrow more from a Beatlesque obsession with Ravi Shankar's music than the grandiose post-rock stylings of label-mates Explosions in the Sky. To some, this may be immediately appealing, but I feel it comes at the sacrifice of the wonderful songwriting that let Grails linger with me. It's much harder to grasp killer moments in the smudge of Eastern sounds spread across 8-minute tracks. There are some, especially on the awesome "Origin-Ing," but overall, the drones and sitar sounds wear thin as they burn off into kitsch on "Silk Road" whose generic Middle Eastern scales sound out of place in a gauche Westernized fashion. It's like watching Aladdin or eating bad kebabs.
There are positives to this album though. With a more eclectic scope comes some really interesting sounds. I like the drones throughout the album as they don't cloy as much as the fake sitars. Overall, there are more instruments, more textures, more tonalities. There are just more sounds
, if that makes sense. And while sometimes all of these cooks do spoil the broth, at least the album benefits from being a trip around the world. It's adventurous and explores new soundscapes and I do have respect for that. Another positive is the production. To balance all of these sounds requires some incredible engineering, and that's present on this album. If some of the songs aren't memorable at least some of the crazy sounds are. Another aspect I liked were the shorter songs that tended to be influenced by industrial and electronic music a little bit. "More Extinction" and "Drawn Curtains," have purposefully electronic beats amongst all of the natural instrumentation, which provides a really great contrast. Hearing a violin and acoustic guitar against a thudding, melted industrial beat is really interesting and successful. Also, on those shorter songs there seems to be a reliance on the concise songwriting of their Red Light
style, which I've gushed over enough now.
Overall, though the album as a whole fails to impress me at the level Red Light
did, there are some really interesting additions. While those additions may not be favorable or well balanced in the case of the Middle Eastern influences, at least Grails are expanding their boundaries. Maybe their next album will produce a cogent union of all of the genres and cultures they like to borrow from.
Recommended Tracks: "More Extinction," "Drawn Curtains," and "Origin-lng"