Black Tar Prophecies Vols. 1, 2, & 3
Styles: instrumental rock, psychedelic
Others: Faust, Six Organs of Admittance, Hawkwind
Few albums have disappointed me like Grails' 2004 Redlight did. Their 2003 debut, The Burden of Hope, mixed Mogwai-style blockbuster movie instrumentals with Neurosis' sense of impending apocalypse, and hinted at great things to come. Redlight wasn't great things, though — it was merely more of the same, a bit stifled and stilted despite the fact that its players had clearly absorbed a wide array of sounds and developed a formidable vocabulary of moods. Two years later, Grails have parted ways with their violinist, rinsed the studio sheen off their hands, and spent time broadening and honing their sound over the course of two limited-run vinyl-only releases, which are compiled here and joined by a pair of additional jams. And I'm no longer disappointed.
Grails have made progress primarily through taking a step back from rock. That's not to say that the genre isn't this album's normative mode — it undoubtedly is — but the song forms are wonderfully diverse. "Black Tar Frequencies" cops a page from the post-punk playbook and fuses dub bass with painterly wah guitar strokes and piano stabs, sounding like Maximum Joy doped to infinity inside a cavern of reverb. A similarly massaging bass lead powers "Erosion Blues," but this time the additional instrumentation is faint and ambiguous — there might be a sax or a 12-string guitar meandering around the edges, but a solemn low-end incantation gobbles up most of the song's spectrum.
If this collection has a spiritual home in space and time, it's early '70s Europe, as many of Grails' moves mirror those of British and continental art rockers. Tape splices and samples faintly conjure the mad house that is Faust's debut, while the album's few bombastic moments — most notably "Belgian Wake-Up Drill" — share an affinity for lurching, brink-of-chaos pummel with King Crimson and International Harvester. Record collector rock this might be: time spent traveling down progressive and psychedelic rock's backroads certainly enriches the listening experience, and familiarity with the album's less prominent Middle Eastern folk, "out" jazz, and drone elements sheds some light on the group's newfound murkiness. Like that of the first wave of American post-rockers, Grails' music now strives for new maps of everything, inviting omnivorous listeners with a penchant for stylistic trainspotting. "More Erosion" even sounds like a really eff'd up Tortoise, dragging vibraphones into a mass of muddy, slurring backwards effects. So this disc isn't an innovation or revelation, but that's also okay, as most of Grails' "source material" is guilty of just as much borrowing. Early art rock watersheds like Faust IV and Future Days don't start new cross-genre conversations as much as they just edit them particularly well. Cheers to these guys for trying their hand at that same art here.
1. Back to the Monastery
2. Bad Bhang Recipe
3. Belgian Wake-Up Drill
4. Smokey Room
5. Black Tar Frequencies
6. Stray Dog
7. Erosion Blues
8. More Erosion
9. Black Tar Prophecy