Longtime members of an ever-growing club of musicians who prefer not to put all of their eggs in one basket, Emil Amos, Alex Hall, and Zak Riles, the three members of Grails, keep busy with both main and side projects. Which ones are which, though, hasn’t remained in stone. Between 2007 and 2011, Grails released four studio albums. Two of those, Doomsdayer’s Holiday and Take Refuge in Clean Living, pole-ends of aggression and chill on the stoner post-rock spectrum, both came in 2008 alone. After they had taken a red pen to their already slim rulebook on Deep Politics, their attentions drifted elsewhere.
The evidence provided by Deep Politics indicated that their attentions were really turning everywhere. Amos, having some time before also taken over the role of drummer in San Francisco doomers Om, paired up with Hall outside of Grails as Lilacs & Champagne. The two are dedicated deep record bin divers, and their habit of scouring thrift shops and record stalls when on tour, particularly in Europe, produced many rare discoveries to toss in the sampler and mill into smoking lounge psych-hop.
Across that whole timeline, the indefatigable Amos also released a fairly steady stream of solo records under the alias Holy Sons, recently picking up the pace with an increasingly accomplished trio of albums that came in quick succession: The Fact Facer (2014), Fall of Man (2015), and last fall’s bountiful In the Garden. No slouch either, Riles teamed up with Slint drummer Britt Walford and Tyler Trotter as Watter, who released their self-titled debut in 2014. The years began to tick by without word of Grails, but plenty from its members.
It turns out they weren’t ignoring the pot, just letting it simmer. Chalice Hymnal came together over the course of five years. That pace that surely had at least something to do with not just their other pursuits, but the growing geographical distance between them. Originally based in Portland, Oregon, Riles returned to Kentucky years ago, while Amos now lives in New York City and Hall is in Berlin. By virtue of being produced piece-by-piece across time and distance, Chalice Hymnal is methodical in its construction.
There is an amber glaze of continuity over all but the most rugged passages of Chalice Hymnal. In the moment, propulsive rockers like “Pelham” and “New Prague” sweep in like unexpected waves, but soon enough after come chilled out ebb tides like “Empty Chamber” and “Rebecca”. Progressive without being prog rock, instrumental without ever leaving room to wonder where the words are, Chalice Hymnal travels extensively across its eleven songs, yet it also becomes a contained cycle.
As song titles like “Deeper Politics” and “Deep Snow II” — a sequel to a key Deep Politics track — suggest, ‘further in’ is the chosen direction. A different flow has also reversed, and the once-tangential projects are now exerting their influence back on the center. “Empty Chamber” in particular would have fit right in on Lilacs & Champagne’s latest, Midnight Features Vol. 2: Made Flesh. Certain flashes of ‘70s guitar flair, or the ruminative acoustic beginning of “Thorns II”, could have come from Holy Sons. Still, there’s almost nowhere else “The Moth & The Flame” or “After the Funeral”, an entire film score condensed into 10 minutes, could call home. Amos, Hall and Riles have redrawn the boundaries of Grails by stitching all of their maps together.