I miss Graham Chapman. Watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail the other day reminded me not only of its status as the one of the funniest movies of all time, but of the brilliance of Chapman’s portrayal of King Arthur. It’s possibly the most hilarious straight performance ever, effortlessly mocking the humorlessness and self-importance intrinsically present in early British literature without ever sacrificing its dignified façade. This goes a long way in explaining how the phrase “Holy Grail” is now less associated with Christianity’s most fabled artifact than with which one of your friends can do the best “Knights of Ni” impression.
I bring this up only because Portland instrumental post-rockers Grails could stand to take a cue from Chapman’s performance. On their latest album, Red Light, the band seems hell bent on reclaiming the mythology and majesty of their namesake (as indicated by the ancient ruins and blood red sky on the album cover). Unfortunately, Grails take themselves so damn seriously that they become more like a prime target for Python’s razor sharp parody than an answer to it. Their heart-heavy dirges aim at catharsis, but sadly hit much lower (right around boredom, to be exact).
Musically, Grails fall somewhere between the Dirty Three’s rambling travel narratives and Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s swooping, cinematic crescendos. It sounds good enough on paper, but its execution is far less impressive. For one, the band possesses neither the Dirty Three’s thematic versatility nor Godspeed’s sheer musical force in numbers, leaving them in an awkward middle ground of half-successes and tired post-rock clichés.
Grails succeed remarkably well in producing an initial musical atmosphere, evoking a sad and lonely world populated by minor guitar chords and squealing violins. It’s nothing we haven’t heard before, but since when is that a crime? Beyond atmospherics, however, the songs fail to hold together thematically. Instrumental music requires tension and resolution, yet Grails are unable to escalate their pleasing auditory backgrounds into anything tangible. Many of the songs are too short, leaving the band with two options for ending them. Some songs cut off just as they are beginning to escalate, like a movie that jumps directly from opening to closing credits. Others, like album opener “Dargai”, lapse abruptly into a series of loud, staccato power chords complete with obnoxious crashing cymbals and overly distorted guitars. These false climaxes are utilized several times during the course of the album, detracting seriously from the thematic cohesion of the songs as they deteriorate from ambient mood pieces into swampy thrashes.
It’s no surprise, then, that the album’s longest track is also its best. “Fevers” is the centerpiece of Red Light, a truly epic composition that would make any pretentious Canadian post-rocker cry into his Labatt’s Blue. The song begins with almost three minutes of menacing violins and piano trills before a drum and tambourine fade in, driving it into the stratosphere. It’ll move you for sure, but it’s also directed enough to have a beginning, middle, and most importantly, a climax. Here, Grails prove that when given time to develop, they’ve got the grits to play in the big leagues. They just need the confidence to explore their own music a little deeper.
Red Light is a record by a young band, with the right influences and a clear idea on where to go with them. Their failure to create earth-shattering mood music is less a result of their lack of talent than of their trying too hard to do so. Any album this fixated on summoning the grandiosity of Christian mythology is bound to sacrifice listener enjoyment in the process. So a word of advice for Grails on their next album: Take a page from Graham Chapman and have some fun with it, for Christ’s sake.