Photo: Temporary Residence

Grails Balance Their Scales: The Reckoning of ‘Anches En Maat’

Portland’s experimental post-rock kingpins Grails mark two decades since their debut with a new full-length retrospective LP and chat with PopMatters.

Anches En Maat
Temporary Residence Ltd.
22 September 2023

Given that Anches En Maat is Grails‘ first album since 2017’s Chalice Hymnal, their first together-in-studio recording in 15 years, and a return to standard album length, an epic quest to interview Grails was required. Over forested dales and gravel roads of Oregon, I traveled to the inaugural Lunasa Cascadia festival for Grails’ first show in four years. In true underground fashion, festival attendees were either performers or dedicated druids. Ritualistic, intimate, and rife with every metallic resonance—from Kayo Dot to Faun Fables to bonfire witches—the scene was an initiation.

I gather the founding members Emil Amos and Alex Hall with their talent in tow: AE Paterra (keys), Ilyas Ahmed (guitars), Jesse Bates (pedal steel, etc.). We descend into a musty basement bar under Dundee Lodge—the only quiet place amidst the festival’s exquisite soundscapes. The 100-year-old lodge was once a Prohibition Era party compound. Despite the dankness, Grails emanate their own distinct, illicit spirit. 

Amos, multi-instrumentalist in multiple projects Om, Holy Sons, Lilacs & Champagne, Zone Black (and the Drifter’s Sympathy podcast), launches into a condensed Grails’ history. His knowingness vibrates with an irascible will and profundity analog to his drumming. With the 20th anniversary of The Burden of Hope reissued by Neurot Recordings, reflections are heightened: “At the beginning, we just thought that we could try to be as free as possible, but being kids that grew up that weren’t true jazzers, we had all these fetishistic influences.” Emil then nods to the Pacific Northwest’s strongholds: Pavement fever dreams, the punk regency of Sun City Girls, and the creativity of Jackie-O Motherfucker, whom Amos honors as “a band in Portland showing us locally that you just could have absolutely no rules”.

Grails’ anarchy is evident as Amos seamlessly constellates to other notable influences: Led Zeppelin‘s heaviness, Brian Eno‘s creative artistry, and the grandness of global music. “Grails never really borrowed any one thing for very long. It was always like we get into Turkish music, and it’s boom! Now it’s in one song. On the next record, we get into this particular part of German music—it’s on half of the next record. It’s always moving. Like we’re into French music, but we don’t stay on it too long.” 

With a similar velocity, Emil downloads Grails’ tender truth: “What you’re seeing in The Burden of Hope to Burning Off Impurities to Black Tar Prophecies to Take Refuge to all the way to Anches En Maatis that we’re showing you our appreciation of life—of other people—and we want to be part of this international dialogue.” Laughing over the contradiction of their societal disdain, they agree with Amos that their work is “a flexing and a flaunting of our love for other people. It’s saying, don’t you love it too? Don’t you love the history of music?”

Certainly that night, Grails’ set showcases a historical richness, playing “Word Made Flesh” (Redlight), “I Led Three Lives” (Deep Politics), “Sisters of Bilitis” (Anches En Maat), “Immediate Mate” (Doomsdayer’s Holiday), “The Burden of Hope” (The Burden of Hope), “Belgian Wake-Up Drill” (Black Tar Prophecies), “Sad and Illegal” (Anches), and “Space Prophet Dogon” (The Burden of Hope) for a crowd that couldn’t believe their sonic luck. 

Retrospectively, Anches En Maat returns Grails to an earlier self, what Alex Hall describes as finding “ourselves with ‘nothing to prove’ again for the first time since that early part of the band. Those first records were made in a relative vacuum, with no natural dialogue with the larger context of underground music outside. Then, we spent 20 years reacting to others’ perceptions of the band and actively digesting all of the musical input. Along the way, we crafted our own language that we now speak comfortably.”

The Grails language is now ironclad hardware. There is a  willingness to experiment, cinephilia, surrealist techniques, and psychedelic petulance. Amos confirms that “Every decision was always perverse. To be totally honest with you, that’s why when we play, there’s a slight smudging disconnect because we’re not literal. We’re not completely sincere.” Ilyas Ahmed chimes in to admit they deploy an unreliable narrator. Hall adds that there is a “refusal to make an easily digestible product.”   

Indeed, what’s slippery and transgressive continues to be their thematic utterance. Over decades, they’ve morphed physically—their ethnomusicology has ballooned accordingly, but creative flippancy is their constant. For instance, their album naming is loose with irony. Questions like “Did the Egyptian deity, Maat, weigher of hearts for admittance into the Afterlife, inform the album? Is there a moral comment here?” prompt an instant “No”. Amos insists Anches En Maat‘s title derived from an Egyptologist friend’s recommendation: “There’s no literal inspiration you can draw on,” but Grails “felt fine borrowing it because the band has inadvertently always sounded old.” 

Though Grails’ brand shunts away from any allusion wrought by Maat, it’s a brilliant invocation. Anches en Maat translates from French to “Reeds of Maat,” metaphorically locating listeners in an attempt to enter the Afterlife—the Field of Reeds. Appropriately, “Sad & Illegal” opens with sinners slinking around, arrested by the Steve Vai sleaze police; a nefarious synth clangs a musical gavel that releases Timba Harris’s redemptive strings. Viktor’s Night Map” sounds like a sieve sifting out those morally intact, hearkening to Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. With it, we map our way into the Hall of Truth for Judgment. “Sister of Bilitis” is a slow sex waltz, announcing Maat, who flaunts her ostrich feather, against which our life deeds will be translated into heft.

Instrumentation builds in “Pool of Gems”, featuring horns, mellotron, Moog, and harmonica. The supplicant skips rocks to gaze into its soul, fighting for paradisical approval. In “Evening Song”, the deliberation proceeds with care. Who knew Maat was so tickly? KH Marie’s vocals certainly do. Unworthy hearts sag in “Black Rain”, a menacing, eco-apocalyptic track. Finally, the long “Anches En Maat” soothes with aftercare, as if a bloodbath smacked us; Maat scours with her prom dress of wings. By the outro, some will be revived. Andy Burton on the continuum confirms this, a nice name for an instrument in this death saga. The arc of this album alone restores divine order.

Anches as a whole in the Grails successfully reconciles two decades of their discography. Amos says, “There were times around ten to 15 years ago when we tried to push away from the early sound to find some new, outlandish horizons that wouldn’t necessarily sound like us. But Anches was a much more open, viscous, and slow-brewing process.” 

When pressed about it flanking earlier work, Amos notes that Anches shares femininity: “We didn’t really guide the record, so it was free to let all those Burden of Hope-style melodicisms back in. Listening to tracks like “Evening Song”, you can hear some of the approach from the Burden days in its delicacy and earnestness for sure. There’s a certain feminine quality dominating both scenarios and even an eco-feminism at work in both records by not trying to conquer the “rock form” but just exploring mood for all of its inherent benefits without telling the listener too much of where to go or what to think.”

Grails soften into postmodernism, beckoning the folk to experiment, to step onto the Grails scale—if they dare. Amos summarizes: “There’s definitely a subtle sense of pride in owning or returning to a territory that’s really natural for you… your own morphing of traditional folk song forms.”

Anches en Maat is the heart of Grails’ artistry, levitating but still stained with their signature sorrow. Nevertheless, blowhard fans or journos will lose their hard-ons for this less-heavy album. So Grails go onward with refinement, judicious now, if not immortal.