Grails is an interesting band. The members came together in their home town of Portland, OR for a single show with no designs on a longer-term project. There was such a positive reaction to the band, however, they hired a couple more local musicians and started recording music in 2000. Since that time, the band has seen couple line-up changes (a guitarist left to travel in Turkey, a violinist vanished), released 11 EPs and LPs, and toured Europe and the U.S. east coast.
Their album, “Burning Off Impurities” was recommended to me by friend and musician, Rockie Brockway, who tends to favor heavier stuff than me. This album, though, while it has its heavy moments, is more hypnotic and atmospheric. Most of the compositions either plod or meander at first and then build to a heavy climax. Though they use a lot of traditional rock ‘n roll instruments, they don’t always use them in standard rock/pop ways. The songs are often infused with Middle Eastern instruments, progressions, and melodies.
The album has just 8 tracks, but only 2 of them are less than 6 minutes long so you get your money’s worth. Give these 5 in particular a listen.
- Soft Temple – Plucked guitar and other strings, plodding bass, and patient percussion open this track and it feels like a slow ride on camel back, but the tune grows in pitch and fervor until the power chords and frantic percussion feel more like rocking out on the way to the oasis.
- Silk Rd – Sitar and guitar moan and whine atmospherically for several minutes before driving percussion comes in to give the song shape. The song swirls together, becoming a platform for some improvisational soloing. They pounce for a few seconds, then quickly fade away.
- Drawn Curtains – The percussion plods behind mesmerizing guitar. Synthesizer and violin add accents. This one took a couple of plays to penetrate, but I really like it now. This is only an excerpt, but a longer one than the sample on Amazon.
- Outer Banks – This one is higher energy, but really fits the definition of post rock. Electric guitar and synthesizer work together to set a mood and flow through chord progressions. The guitar occasionally steps forward for some psychedelic soloing. This is a beautiful composition that challenges the ear and really grabs me.
- Origin-ing – I would love to see Grails perform this song. It doesn’t quite seem to know where it’s going, but it is cool beginning to end. The eerie beginning soon gives way to fast percussion and a frantic, heavily reverbed guitar solo. The percussion keeps things moving through some great work on harmonica and then a weird synthesizer bridge. The final minute deconstructs the places the song has been before fading out.
As I went through some samples of their other albums, I was surprised to hear that they sometimes sing. Not on “Burning Off Impurities,” though. This album is wholly instrumental, consistent, and engaging.
I have another library find for you today. The band is Volcano Choir, and their debut album, “Unmap,” is strange, melodic, ethereal, and fearless. I suppose they remind me most of the experimental, psychedelic pop of Animal Collective. When you get into this territory, comparisons become problematic.
Volcano Choir is a collaboration between Justin Vernon of Bon Iver (whom I have heard OF, but never actually heard) and the band Collections of Colonies of Bees (whom I have neither heard of nor heard). Bon Iver is an indie folk band who have played Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, and Austin City Limits. Collections of Colonies of Bees are apparently known for their complex and abstract brand of post-rock. Both bands have roots in Wisconsin and, perhaps not surprisingly, have found each other.
“Unmap” is a release by some truly creative musicians following their muse wherever it leads them. Such purity of intent is risky, particularly if your muse isn’t that great, but it really pays off for these guys who clearly have great pop sensibilities, but no interest in pop music itself. The guitar and keyboard is at times structured and at others aimless and noodling. The percussion flows or marches depending on the needs of the groove. I think, however, their greatest strength might be their vocal work, which is light, airy, often very odd, and unfailingly beautiful.
At times, “Unmap” wanders so far afield that it loses me. Perhaps with repeated listens I may better understand what they musicians are doing and enjoy some of the odder songs more. These 5 tracks, however, grabbed me the first time through and the more I listen to them the more I like them. Check them out.
- Husks and Shells – Quietly plucked guitar, sweet harmony vocals, and nowhere to go make this a very pleasant listen. It almost feels like the song doesn’t really start until 45 seconds from its end.
- Sleepymouth – The rhythmic vamping of the guitar and swelling cymbals make this song feel like it’s just about to get up and run at any second, and it does finally build to a powerful percussive finish, but not in the way you expect.
- Island, IS – This is perhaps the most accessible song on the disc, being the closest to actual pop music. Having said that, it is still quirky with odd lyrics and an unpredictable melody.
- And Gather – The handclaps and harmony vocals remind you of a song you’ve heard, but it sounds like it’s being played backwards.
- Still – This slow, undulating song is as towering, sunny, and beautiful as a cathedral. Just gorgeous.
This album was released just a few months ago, in September of 2009. Hopefully, Vernon and company find this collaboration rewarding and fulfilling and are at work on another album as I type. Musicians who stretch and bend music like this keep me picking up random discs even when 75% of what I find is weak or tired. They also inspire the next generation of musicians to find new ways to create art.
Yesterday, I had to review a weak release. Today, I’m delighted to draw your attention to a relatively obscure new solo project that is densely layered, richly produced, and beautifully written. “Tongue Tangled Heart” has its ups and downs, but the ups are so high it’s a great effort. Check out this gorgeous single with a great video:
Read my whole review at AltSounds: http://hangout.altsounds.com/reviews/115601-bleeding-heart-narrative-tongue-tangled-hair-album.html. Excuse the crazy punctuation; they edited my post.
If bubble gum pop and nickelodeon rock is at one end of the spectrum, Dragon Turtle’s new release, “Almanac,” is near the far end. I suppose the really chaotic, heavy thrash metal is more opposite. This stuff isn’t really heavy at all, but it is chewy as rawhide and very thoughtfully constructed. It’s not easy to digest, but it is good, if you like bands like Explosions in the Sky or some of Yo La Tengo’s less pop-oriented work. Read my whole review on AltSounds: http://hangout.altsounds.com/reviews/114187-dragon-turtle-almanac-album.html
These guys come from a tradition of ambient and “shoe-gazer” rock. They’ve had a lot of line-up changes, though, and each new incarnation plays more mainstream and accessible music than the last. Their new album, “Climb Up,” is a strong effort. Check out the album and read my review on AltSounds: http://hangout.altsounds.com/reviews/113466-apse-climb-up-album.html
Most of Califone’s new release, “All of My Friends Are Funeral Singers,” is mellow, but there is plenty of energy. They have put out a richly textured and appealing album with dark themes. Really, really good stuff. Read my review on AltSounds: http://hangout.altsounds.com/reviews/113336-califone-all-my-friends-are-funeral-singers-album.html
One of the best things to come from doing this blog is I get great music recommendations from readers. One recently encouraged me to listen to Explosions in the Sky, a Post-Rock band out of Austin, TX. What is Post-Rock, you may ask? (I did.) Well, the music critic who coined the term, Simon Reynolds, used the term to describe music “using rock instrumentation for non-rock purposes, using guitars as facilitators of timbre and textures rather than riffs and power chords.” The sound incorporates elements of Ambient, Jazz, and Electronica.
Interestingly, many bands that are called Post-Rock don’t like the term, and these guys are apparently no exception. Guitarist Munaf Rayani said, “We don’t consider ourselves post-rock at all; we consider ourselves a rock band.” When I first listened to their 2007 release, All Of A Sudden I Miss Everyone, I thought of it as progressive Indie Rock. After reading a bit about Post-Rock and seeing who else is lumped into the genre, I have to say sorry guys, you’re Post-Rock.
I’m not sure why they object, though. Some great bands like Tortoise, Bowery Electric, and Stereolab are in this group and I think the description captures what they do. The music is all about textures and moving through and ambient space. I think that’s the big thing that keeps them from being just ambient. They don’t create a space and hang out in it. Each song is a journey, with a definite beginning, middle, and end. Some of the compositions are long and they’re not always relaxing. It’s an interesting effort and it makes me want to see these guys live.
There are only 6 tracks on the album and some of them are quite long. I recommend these three:
- So Long, Lonesome – What a beautiful melody. There is a lot of subtly layered guitar work going on, but it all supports the melodic piano. Cool video.
- What Do You Go Home To? – This one is as slow as a sunrise. For as ambient as it feels at times, it builds steadily to a climax followed by a 1 minute exposition. This time it is the piano that lays down a minor chord backdrop and the guitars weave in and out, bending notes and propelling the song along.
- The Birth and Death of the Day – Unlike the peaceful beauty of the last two, this one launches into a towering set of chords played large enough to fill a cathedral. Its several movements are evocative, uplifting, and simply very pleasing. This is a brilliant composition. Listen to the whole thing on YouTube. Incidentally, someone spent a lot of time picking out video for this and it is cool to watch with this soundtrack.
This is another band that will be well worth going back to listen to their entire catalog. I’m not sure I would listen to an entire album all at once, but if you have a mix of ambient or relaxing music on your iPod, their stuff will be a great addition.