Circa the middle-aughts, someone clandestinely searching the web for music would stumble upon massive lists copied from blogspot to message board to wordpress, featuring artist names, album titles, and (mostly dead) Mediafire links. These lists were nebulously grouped by genre, among which was post-rock, then enjoying a brief period of exposure before everyone turned on the term, and it was stretched to mean everyone from Maps & Atlases to Boards of Canada.
Post-rock was always a pretty terrible genre name, and no band prominently associated with it ever actually embraced the term. This was due to the fact that plenty of these bands just rocked, with none of the ironic distance that comes with a term like ‘post’. Most of the original run of acts either broke up in the early 2000s (Godspeed You! Black Emperor), changed up their sound (Mogwai), or went into inactivity (Dirty Three). So what we were left with were a few standard bearers like Explosions in the Sky or Tortoise, and a mess of second- and third-tier bands that played cheesy riffs, but with excessive delay on leads that, stripped of their effects, were barely melodic, definitely uninteresting. Never have so many bands stuck so strictly to a template for being ‘avant-garde.’
Grails frequently made a cameo on these lists as ‘Middle-Eastern post-rock’, a distinction that never made a lot of sense at the time, and is even less useful now. There’s a reason for this: Though they lack vocals, they’re very defiantly a rock group, cribbing from ‘70s psych and progressive rock to construct deep, druggy grooves that lurch from note to note. Besides full-lengths, the group has released six editions of their Black Tar Prophecies series, which comprises EPs, splits, and everything else in between, and Grails uses the format to work in strange, new ways that don’t necessarily fit the form of a typical album.
They are in high form on Black Tar Prophecies Vol’s 4, 5 & 6, which collects an EP, a split with Pharaoh Overlord, and three new tracks exclusive to the release. Several immediate forms jump out to the listener. There are sound collages stitched together from slowed-down gospel records, radio recordings, and bible verses, mood-setters that nonetheless possess their own sturm und drang. Songs like “A Mansion Has Many Rooms” sound cribbed from peak-period King Crimson, full of phased guitars and synthesizer bleeps. And then there are the swerving rockers, of which “Self-Hypnosis” is the best example, where harmonizing leads churn over an unstoppable bass line.
While technically a compilation, BTP succeeds because it does not stick to a standard format, mixing up the songs from each volume so that the thing runs as a whole, not a series of separate parts stood end-to-end. Not only skilled craftsmen, Grails are good sequencers, too, setting the album as incidental music to a low-budget and increasingly perverse art film to be played inside the listener’s mind as they listen. So many strange noises are introduced into otherwise stable songs; you begin to wonder as to their narrative, in addition to musical, purpose. Who is the preacher reciting verse in the background of “Penalty Box”? Those voices skittering over “Invitation to Ruin”, what dimension have they come from? Who is ringing the bells on “I Want a New Drug”? Few of their peers control chaos so evocatively.
In fact, most of the peers identified on those blogrolls never even made it out of the post-rock ghetto. Grails succeeded because it proved so voracious, so omnivorous, that its music positively pulled itself out of the murk, determined to be heard. While their evolutionary process has been more about refinement, testing each part and replacing those that don’t work, on BTP it results in a smooth, dense core of sound, a band rumbling around in the backrooms of rock and roll for ever-more-effective sounds. It’s mood music for nostalgia-prone cultists, or the record collecting obsessed. It may leave its claw marks on your brain yet.