All serious listeners and music fans have a handful of artists they believe absolutely should be more popular; they obsess over the relative obscurity of some of their favorite musicians. Portland post-rock demigod Grails is certainly one of those bands for me. Yes, the band has certainly garnered a healthy level of popularity and success, but I sense that it has hit a glass ceiling (one it's sure to crash through anytime now). Then again, it rarely sets up camp on any particular label for more than a record or two. That can be advantageous for a band (it's not tied down), but it can also constrain an act to a tier below more successful and widely known bands. With Black Tar Prophecies Vol. 4 being released on Important Records, Grails may be leaning towards a more permanent home.
Black Tar Prophecies Vol. 4 was initially rumored to be material left off of the Vol. 1, 2, & 3 album, but to these ears, that can’t be true. It’s partly due to recording qualities and styles, but also playing styles. There’s a bit more polished sound to the final mix, scrubbing away some of Grails’ signature grittiness. In the same spirit, gone are a few of the droney, opiated sounds. Yet, this is, for the majority of the EP, not a bad thing, and it is still obviously a Grails record.
The zenith of Vol. 4 materializes in the groovy “Self-Hypnosis.” For a little over eight minutes Grails pays fantastic homage to the 70's psych and stoner rock that has influenced it. Wah-wah effects and disturbingly unassuming synthesizers place this jam firmly in the hands of Aerosmith circa “Sweet Emotion” (a huge guilty pleasure of mine, by the way). On the other hand, there are dueling Pink Floyd guitars dog-fighting through international airspace. As for the drums, I sense just a touch of Ginger Baker. What’s most impressive about “Self-Hypnosis” is how all these worn-on-the-sleeve influences are packed in together but the song still retains that surge and ebb style of build-up and release known to every Grails fan. This reveals another sterling quality of the band and its music: Grails has deftly avoided the trappings of both traditional and post-rock song structures. This attribute is exactly why “Up All Night” leaves such a bitter aftertaste.
“Up All Night” has the boys from the Rose City jumping ship and doing some sort of cinematic lounge act, sans the singing of course. As the song lacks the teeth and dark soul of everything else the band has done, it sounds as though it could squeeze into place on an 80's cop dramedy as one of the more serious, introspective songs. To get a true picture of what this means, imagine a B movie adaptation of Beverly Hills Cop. “Up All Night” also really shouldn’t be the closer for this EP, because it neither bashes its way to a grand finale nor hushes the last light out of the record. This was also a problem with Take Refuge In Clean Living. “Clean Living” trudged grudgingly to a finish line that “Take Refuge” clearly deserved. In the case of “Up All Night,” it might be better served on the cutting room floor with a completely new song written to take its place as the caboose. This may sound harsh, but focus on the fact that Grails’ sound has always laid firm roots in Americana (be it Appalachian or Frontier), and the loungey, clean aesthetic of “Up All Night” scrubs that grit away. It leaves, in its wake, a sonic Las Vegas; the promise of sin and hedonism in a sterile surrounding; the finely controlled illusion of chaos, which invalidates itself with emptiness and boredom. Another testament to the strength of the band is that, after all that “Up All Night” does to sink its own ship, it has still produced another first-rate release.
While some of the darker drone and drug haze is sublimated, the almost-as-scary-as-Svarte Greiner ambient pieces, “I Want A New Drug” and “New Drug II,” add a lovely dimension to the band’s sonic canon. They both feature the stark ramblings of a preacher, who happens to sound exactly like the one from A Silver Mt. Zion’s “Broken Chords Can Sing A Little.” “I Want a New Drug” also employs a warbly, drowning sample of a choral version of “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen,” making the opener spectacularly spine-tingling and dark. Whispered voices, one of which I swear calls my first name, whip me into the throes of a supernatural encounter with a wandering ancestral specter. And then, the preacher questions, “Can philosophy lift a man out of the cess pool of this life?………..it never has.”
Maybe that should be the closer. It would certainly be impressive to drop into silence immediately after that bleak line.