For a group that's operated out of Portland since 1999, Grails have surprisingly little local recognition. This can be clearly attributed to factors within the band's control: They don't overplay the area, concentrating instead on touring and making records for classy indie labels like Neurot, Robotic Empire, and their new home at Temporary Residence. Additionally, Grails prefer to remain cloaked in a bit of mystery, portraying themselves as a nihilistic, druggy lot that allows their cascading instrumental music to speak for itself.
A typical Grails song (if there is such a thing) starts with a loosely strummed guitar, or wind, or ocean tides, and layers are slowly added bit by bit until a pulse of bass and drum-driven groove reveals itself. Plenty of stereo effects and creative mixing ensure that sheets of sound dance in one speaker and out the other. The organic analog tones naturally blend acoustic instruments with vintage synths. Kraut-rock jams culminate in a final hook or epiphany, often stopping before the listeners can nod their red-eyed heads a second time. Guitarist Zak Riles defends this method: "We do not have vocals so we end up trying to figure out the best way to make a song interesting compositionally without blowing our wad."
Considering that this Friday is the release show for the latest Grails outing Burning off Impurities, their mindset seems months beyond it. "We're already waist deep in the next record, [which] will be out less than a year from now. I guess that's the main focus right now. Beyond that, more cool tours/shows with cool folks," explains founding member and guitarist Alex Hall. Indeed, the boys are about to embark on a string of US dates with Japanese shoegazers Mono. "Hopefully a trip to Australia or Japan" will follow, daydreams Riles.
The title of the new record is apt, as much of the fat and filler on prior Grails records has been trimmed away. It speaks of how the band's folk-tinges and Eastern scales are a manageable influence now, rather than an overwhelming aftertaste. It could also be a reference to missing member Tim Horner. Or maybe it revolves around their shift away from the hippie-metal mecca label Neurot—Hall explains, "It was nothing personal, just an attempt to stray away from a corner that we kinda felt we were being stuck in." Most likely it's all of these and more; a moment in time when the band has enough maturity, experience, and hindsight to create their best work to date.
Perhaps the act of creation is an antidote to darkness. When asked about their infrequent gigging, drummer Emil Amos revealed, "I have found no way in which the local music scene helps alleviate my depressions." And Hall tells me, "The next record is about suicide," while Amos describes their closest contemporaries as "The frigid, the under-loved, late-night pacers, and motherless babies." Tongues in cheeks or not, it's a heavy vibe to throw out into the universe.
Grails have found a way to be improvisational craftsmen with a focused aesthetic. They straddle somewhere between art-rock music and pure ambience. It seems to be working for them.