I accidentally went to a Grails show a few years ago. What really got me out of bed and into some strange Brattleboro warehouse was a chance to see Mascis’s Witch. I thought that if Mascis could do with drums what he can do with a guitar, then he might really be the one to at least just give us a clue. I was shamefully not familiar with the next two bands at the time, who turned out to be Grails and OM. By the end of the night, my brain was stuck soaring somewhere in the void between the dark spirit-summoning drone of OM and the shrouded-sage-mysticism of Grails. It was a very fortunate accident.
Despite the seemingly never-ending technological innovations that humans bring into the world, there’s thankfully still no way to really capture being somewhere. But, while there is no substitute for the grime and joy of a live show, there’s always the hope that a live DVD will manage to capture at least a taste of the magic so that the moment can be re-experienced again and again from the comforts of the living room. Two-thirds of Acid Rain is an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to do just that. But the other third delivers some heavy music videos crammed with cryptic and dome-stimulating image cut-ups.
The first of the two live segments is from Grails' November 2007 show at Knitting Factory in New York, where the band rips through seven tracks from their last three studio albums. The set opens up with the soul-raging “Reincarnation Blues” from last year’s Doomsdayer’s Holiday. The Buddha-with-electric-guitar fury slows as Zak Riles leads the band into a tight version of “Silk Rd.” The tranquility blows up into a full-on blaze as Emil Amos goes free, pounding the dust out of his kit. The rest of the set is musically solid, the mood is deep, and the sound quality is as good as can be expected. But there’s something missing.
The camerawork is awfully uninspiring, though this is likely due to the fact that there’s just not much space at the venue. All we really get are a few predictable transitions between band members and some awkward close-ups. Every once in a while, there’s a strange transition where the camera blackens the band out to reveal some ominously slow moving clouds, a castle, and piles of skulls underwater with fish swimming around them. The first time it cut to the clouds in the middle of “Silk Rd” I thought to myself, “Oh shit! Are they gonna do some Song Remains the Same fantasy sequences? Is Alex Hall going to sneak into a castle and save a princess? Is Riles gonna climb a haunted mountain and shoot colors out of his eyes?” But, alas, we immediately go back to the same under-stimulating stage shots.
The same goes for the next live segment, which shows various line-ups of the band over the past few years of touring. Overall, the musical quality is decent, but the camerawork and random visuals are a bit lackluster and tedious. The first set features some nice brass moments that bring out an unexpected free quality from the band, pairing up nicely with Amos’ obviously out-jazzed influences. Leading into some sets from their 2004 European tour, they have a brief encounter, exchanging some words about castles, with a stoned kid. We get a few shots of the band in-studio that don’t really go anywhere, some out-of-the-car-window road shots, scattered pieces of incoherent conversation, and street scenes. Ultimately, it’s not clear why we’re watching these live performances rather than just listening to a live LP.
Despite these setbacks, the main feature of Acid Rain slightly makes up for the drag of the live segments. The video for the eerily Floydian “Acid Rain” takes us through a blissed-out beach scene with warrior riders making their way to a Jodorowskian pagan blood ritual. Fires blaze in the transitions from heavy doom-erotica to blood-gushing skulls. “X-Contaminations” walks us through some creepy slow-motion Discovery Channel archival footage, scenes of total environmental meltdown, kung fu training, and more tasty cult-erotica. “Predestination Blues” freaks out on misty-mountain Samurai, snake-charmer, and orgy warm-up shots, superbly capturing the mysterious pre-Christian spiritual journey that Grails’ musical aesthetic invokes. The rest of the videos spark the same psyched-out and pleasurable imagery, cutting from sunset meditations to bones to esoteric religious rituals to nuclear holocaust. While all of the videos are visually fascinating, providing a perfectly tripped-out companion to the deep-space grooves, it would be nice to know where exactly these sequences come from. A reference list would be extremely helpful, because most people who get into these videos are going have a real urge to see the original films in their entirety.
The live segments of Acid Rain are ultimately a drag, proving that there really is no substitute for being-there at a live show. Much of Grails’ live-magic is lost. The robust mystical sounds don’t fill up and take over the living room the way they do a random Vermont warehouse. The music videos, though, provide quite righteous and well-suited visual stimulation for any heads that need it. If this collection had more music videos, or the same amount of videos and a live CD instead of the live footage, it would’ve done Grails more justice. Meanwhile, we can journey out to one of their shows or spin one of their LPs with El Topo playing in the background.