Grails Burning Off Impurities

[Temporary Residence; 2007]

Styles: exotic epic drone
Others: Ash Ra Temple, Hawkwind, Neu!, Black Sabbath

Admittedly, I was late to the Grails party, and after hearing them, I realized I was much later to the party than I would have liked. I first heard of Grails after puttering around Julian Cope's Heritage Head website for some info regarding the reissue of his own tour de force, Jehovahkill. Cope is many things to many people -- megalithic British chronicler, a treasure trove of berserk behavior for rock historians, passionate environmental nut, Krautrock konnoisseur, legendary '80s pop boffin -- but the man is first and foremost a fan. Generally, if the Arch Drude says something is worth checking out, it usually is. Sonically, whatever it is he is hailing to the high heavens is usually one or two worlds apart from his own stuff, but aesthetically, it is sure to be kindred in spirit.

Because of Cope's righteous ranting about both the Interpretations EP and Black Tar Prophecies, Vols. 1, 2 & 3, I sought out Grails. And because of Grails, I cultivated an even greater appreciation for music that is instrumental and intelligent, free of an idiot frontman or frontwoman ruining the proceedings with their caterwauling and their stating of political views and obvious "written-in-the-studio" blather. Grails are instrumental and intelligent, without the stupid air of sophistication that holds many admirers at arm's length. It takes a deft hand to accomplish it effectively. It takes a certain degree of arrogance, violence, vulnerability, and warmth. Grails are instrumental and intelligent, and refreshingly inclusive.

It may pain the Grails faithful to note that, if not for the periods of bang and crash, Burning Off Impurities could work nicely as, gulp, a chill-out album or, double gulp, a "world music" album complete with "exotic" instrumentation and extended ragas. Of course, it is neither a chill-out nor a world music album, but it also certainly isn't the focused post-rock drone piece many expect it to be. The use of eclectic instruments can sometimes be used to mask an artist's lack of imagination and at other times can crowd a song so much as to render it useless. Luckily, there are no worries about that with the tracks on Burning Off Impurities.

For example, "Silk Rd" is an eight-minute oud-driven juggernaut. Hats off to Wm. Zak Riles for pulling off an often difficult maneuver without conjuring up thoughts of a stereotypical "Indian" sitar-player-and-belly-dancing pastiche from a 1960s Peter Sellers film like The Party or The Millionairess. Even a short interlude like More Extinction, clocking in at just over two minutes, has an "epic" feel of its own, due to its mix of "When the Levee Breaks" skin-thumping overtop of a playful organ and harpsichord combo. "Drawn Curtains" has plucked notes and a spidery violin line that weaves its way throughout and sounds like a stock score-bit from a deathly somber street-market film scene.

While there is a definite quiet/loud "formula" at work here, it never feels forced, foreseeable, or flat. During the many moments of dead time on Burning Off Impurities one can ponder a previous or upcoming hallucination, like in "Origin-ing" with its interspersed snacks of crying harmonica and soft keys among the main courses of manic propulsion (special mention to drummer Emil Amos' potent performance here and throughout the album), while the title track just builds and builds, using a sly trumpet to soundtrack a grandiose battle. If Morricone had ever turned his ear towards scoring a Middle Eastern historical saga, it may have ended up sounding like Burning Off Impurities.

Grails, while not yet flying at a particularly elevated point of the hype radar, do have that buzz to them. More importantly, they give off that feeling that everything they record is part of a journey leading to a truly blessed space. Burning Off Impurities has the potential to be overblown and over-praised, but it never feels pompous or overdone. You should expect to read and hear more than a little fawning over it though, and rightfully so. It is simply a very well-executed album that, while having that unusual "epic-ness" to it, does not feel derivative or hokey.

While fervent Grails fans might be surprised or even mildly disappointed by Burning Off Impurities, the album is not likely going to upset those who flocked to the band in their denser drone days. I love a good pummeling of my senses as much as anyone, but I'm really thankful for the subtle intricacy. One has to recognize that Grails are either fine-tuning their vision while they find their true niche or, perhaps, the band have made it clear that they will live out their existence as an unpredictable, yet gifted child throwing out a different spasm with every growth spurt it experiences. Either way, Burning Off Impurities is more than an interesting pit-stop along the fantastic Grails voyage, and I, for one, cannot wait to see where it leads.

1. Soft Temple
2. More Extinction
3. Silk Rd
4. Drawn Curtains
5. Outer Banks
6. Dead Vine Blues
7. Origin-ing
8. Burning Off Impurities

Most Read