Photo: Temporary Residence

Grails’ ‘Anches en Maat’ Takes a Cinematic Turn

Grails’ new LP is like listening to the soundtrack for an existential cosmic Western, Andrei Tarkovsky taking a stab at some Werner Herzog Mesoamerican mythologizing.

Anches En Maat
Temporary Residence
22 September 2023

Listening to the first two minutes of “Sad & Illegal”, with its moody analog synths and surging, soaring strings, you’d be forgiven for not realizing you’re listening to the same band responsible for the melancholic apocalyptic post-rock of The Burden of Hope 20 years ago. The climactic crescendos are nowhere to be found. The folky neoclassicism is dialed way back. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think you were listening to the soundtrack to some existential cosmic Western, perhaps something like Andrei Tarkovsky taking a stab at some Werner Herzog Mesoamerican mythologizing.

In many ways, Anches En Maat is a bold new step for Grails, nearly 25 years into their career. In many others, it’s a return to form despite being sonically very different. Grails mainstay Alex Hall told PopMatters in a recent interview, “(we found) 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.” Fellow long-time Grails member Emil Amos elaborated further. “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.”

In short, on Anches en Maat, Grails do what they want, when they want. They are essentially guys in a room full of musical tools, grabbing whatever strikes their fancy and stitching sounds together in any way that strikes their fancy. They bring together an unusual palette of 1970s progressive rock, instrumental soundtracks, and visionary music from all over the world to create a unique psychedelic stew that is strictly their own.

After the euphoria of “Sad & Illegal”, things take a turn for the subtle with the dubby, nocturnal “Viktor’s Night Map”, with its railroad rhythms and its melodica-like harmonica loop, making for a satisfying late-night slow burn. This sets the stage beautifully for “Sisters of Billitis”, which evokes vintage Tortoise, foggy film noir, and public access sleaze at the same time. While Anches en Maat owes a philosophical allegiance to the earliest Grails’ records, it borrows even more heavily from Amos’ side projects – Lilacs & Champagne, the Holy Sons, and, most recently, under his own name.

In terms of sound, style, and overall vibe, Anches en Maat is more in keeping with Amos’ exquisite Zone Black from this year, with him recreating the strange, beyond-obscure world of 1970s library music and exploitation soundtracks. There’s a similar thematic quality to Anches en Maat’s melodic elements, which is made surreal and evocative with artful production. “Pool of Gems” sounds like the vampires from Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive having an oud jam in the foggy abandoned circus of Carnival of Souls. “Anches en Maat” closes things out with a brooding piano ballad, lost and dazed in a haunted hall of mirrors, like the credits rolling on a bleary-eyed 1970s thriller. 

Of course, anyone who misses the fiery sturm und drang of Grails’ earliest work might somewhat lament their absence on Anches en Maat. The fiddle and fury of their first few records is ancient history at this point, though, and they’ve been reinventing themselves ever since. Thank the deities they have, too, as the Godspeed You! Black Emperor-esque orchestral builds were already becoming cliché in 2003 when they were releasing their first records. Had they listened to public sentiment, they’d likely be moldering on the scrap heap of history alongside scores of forgettable instrumental post-rock bands. Here’s to hoping they continue ignoring everybody except for their muse.

RATING 7 / 10