Grails – Black Tar Prophecies – Vol. 1, 2 & 3

Black Tar Prophecies – Vol. 1, 2 & 3

The Grails have changed a lot since their solid debut, Burden of Hope. Back then they were five members strong for their first two full lengths with the unique addition of a violinist, Timothy Horner. This was in part what drew me to the group in the first place. Horner’s style in which he played the instrument was a chilling melodic voice unlike the typical classic background curtain most often heard in bands. When their second full-length hit shelves with a more experimental and democratic set of songs, along with my attendance of a show where their violinist showed up midway through their set, I had to wonder what future albums might sound like. While Redlight had moments of brilliance amidst the moments of confusion, it made for a fairly non-cohesive album. And with rumors of their violinist hocking his instrument during a tour and frequenting the streets to play for money, it wasn’t surprising that his presence was no longer gracing the stage or future recording studios with the band. But what would happen to the group with the loss of such an important voice?

The last year has seen the group taking leaps and bounds in experimenting with other instruments and their sound as a whole. There live performances are also different now that they perform with one less member. The guys now switch instruments continuously throughout their set and even within some songs themselves. It has become increasingly difficult to define each member by his instrument when they are continuously adding to their list of talents. After two recordings that would lead to a split EP with the Red Sparrowes and a limited edition release in the UK, the two recordings were brought together along with two previously unreleased songs to form Black Tar Prophecies, Volumes 1, 2 & 3. Here we see the group performing as a quartet with a collection that rivals their debut.

“Back to the Monastery” opens the album with a deafening sound that is anything but pretty and is something you might expect in a movie as a sort of warning before a battle scene in some ancient Asian city in the mountains. The droning sound is soon followed by a tribal drumbeat that is both primal and creepy. Following on the dark note comes “Bad Bhang Recipe” with something straight out of a David Lynch film. Angelo Badalamenti would be proud.

But not all of the songs on Black Tar Prophecies are filled with doom and gloom. “Smokey Room” displays the groups knack for rise and fall with a beautiful acoustic piece that helps to ease the tension but still maintains a certain chilling element that would keep it out of your local coffee shop. The layered guitars are not only a nice breather between the droning psychadelia, free-form jazz and post rock explorations but continues to display their versatility in tackling different sounds and emotions. Another softer moment comes in the form of a banjo in “Stray Dog”. This is not only one of my favorite tracks on the album but is actually a composition that I heard awhile back during a live performance and have been waiting for it to appear in a form that I could take home with me. The more folk-inspired track gives a nod towards the groups earlier days with layers of guitar along with a slight tapping of the drum. The building of these instruments provides a nice backdrop to Zakary Riles on the banjo, which steals the spotlight when it enters two minutes into the piece.

The two previously unreleased tracks, which appear near the end, give us a hint of what might be to come for the Portland-based quartet. With a very tribal feel, sticks give way to the use of hands with Emil Amos on drums in “Erosion Blues”. The following track, “More Erosion” sees the group in its most extensive use of instruments yet. Here, Alex Hall trades his pretty steady use of guitar for a few moments on the alto saxophone while William Slater goes crazy on many different types of keys. Meanwhile, far away in the background come the faint sounds of what one might hear in a jungle environment.

After listening to the latest album a few times, I found myself forgetting about the once important role that the violin played. While I will always enjoy the Grails as they were, the new Grails seem to have reinvented themselves into a stronger force that will continue to set them apart from so many other non-vocal groups out there. The Grails music has something that so many others are lacking and that’s the emotional connection that makes each track a personal experience for the listener. And with the strength of their new-found sound taking a solid hold, I can only imagine what their next album, said to be released in March of 2007, will have in store for its listeners.