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Holy Grails 

Just when we thought it was safe to turn our backs on instrumental indie rock

Wednesday, Apr 28 2004
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I remember the exact moment that I first heard Tortoise's Millions Now Living Will Never Die. It was a spring night, 1996, and some friends and I were speeding up the 405 freeway in Southern California, desperate to get to a Blur concert. We were, like so many pasty dorks of that era, big fans of Britpop -- but not just Britpop. We liked all kinds of below-the-radar sounds made by awkward-enough white kids: the plaintive indie rock of Built to Spill and Modest Mouse; the flailing indie rock of Unwound and Sunny Day Real Estate; the sullen, literate indie rock of Magnetic Fields and Heavenly. (Gee, now that I think about it, it was a lot of indie rock, but hey, we were sheltered. Admit it: You were, too.) But when those first notes of "Djed" came out of the crappy, factory-model speakers of my friend's '87 Toyota Cressida -- the notes of Doug McCombs' gentle, meandering bass line, which was so soothing, so expressive, yet so intent on introducing heretofore unfamiliar frets to one another -- I knew my music tastes were forever changed.

The guys in Tortoise weren't the first to make melodic, cerebral instrumental music. Nevertheless, theirs was a watershed album. What Millions Now Living showed my relatively closed 17-year-old mind, as I'm certain it showed many others, was that there was a world outside the five-minute confessionals of our indie rock heroes, that there was as much insight and emotion to be discovered in 20 minutes of abstract, subtly arranged noodling as there was in Stephin Merritt's brainy lyrics or Doug Martsch's dusky refrains.

Yes, Tortoise broke the dam. But something was in the Kool-Aid back then, because while the Chicago sextet was acquainting us with sounds like jazz and dub, bands such as Montreal's Godspeed You! Black Emperor were creating epic dirges that drew from chamber music and the avant-garde; Glasgow's Mogwai, with its goal of being the "Loudest Band on Earth," was sequencing loud/soft guitar dynamics into breathtaking, distortion-laden compositions; Louisville's Rachel's was conforming elegant piano and string melodies to decidedly rock-based arrangements. For a while, it seemed like the only indie musicians who had to keep their day jobs were vocalists.

But then the market became saturated. Before you could say "crescendo" there was a band like this on every block (I started one). Tortoise, Mogwai, Godspeed, Rachel's -- these groups stayed together and are still making decent records today. But their sound was so often imitated that the genre became watered down, irrelevant, a near-joke.

And besides, even if there hadn't been a glut of crappy, look-Mom-no-vocalist bands out there, those days are far behind us. Today we've got plenty of fun, novel music trends, neat-o inventions like funk-punk, backpacker hip hop, and all these acts that sound like Joy Division. Perhaps it's time we forgot about the dinosaur that is ... whatever you want to call it, right?

Not on your life, El Guapo. Enter the Portland quintet Grails, which has arrived with The Burden of Hope, an album of stunningly nuanced instrumental rock that's so powerful, so inspiring, it makes me want to break out a box of tissues and relive that SoCal car ride all over again, the one in which I discovered that a band's music alone could speak for itself, that a few well-placed notes could say as much as -- or more than -- any singer's scream.

Dubbed Laurel Canyon until last year, when the movie of the same name came out, Grails originally took shape toward the end of the '90s, as the bedroom recording project of 26-year-old guitarist Alex Hall. Hall got his start playing in hardcore bands in high school, and spent a few years gigging around the local music scene before finding himself dissatisfied.

"It's just totally oversaturated," he explains, speaking from his apartment in Oregon. "Seriously, everybody in this town is in a band. So there's maybe two people [who aren't]. You've got an audience of two people. ... I don't mean to complain. I love Portland, but it's just something I've accepted."

Bored with playing shows, Hall focused his attention on making home recordings of "basically just little guitar pieces," with nary a notion of recruiting musicians to play them out. It was his roommate, Grails drummer Emil Amos, who encouraged him to take the project further.

"He kind of kicked me in the ass and helped me put together a band to do a few shows," Hall explains. "And we pieced it together, and it went very well. And the local press seemed to be into it, and the audience liked it, so we shrugged our shoulders: 'Well, I guess we're a band.' Very unintentional, I guess."

For those shows, and for the two eponymous EPs the band released in 2000 and 2001, Hall assembled a group of veteran musicians from Portland that included drummer Amos, who plays in the folk band Holy Sons; violinist Timothy Horner, who works with jangle-psych outfit Jackie-O Motherfucker; and classically trained pianist/bassist William Slater; second guitarist Zak Riles, of the folk band Peace Harbor, joined up shortly thereafter. It was a motley mix of influences and styles -- from folk to hardcore, avant-garde to classical -- but together the musicians managed to pull it off. Still, even after the band's initial success, none of the players involved considered Grails anything more than a side project. That is until Steve Von Till, owner of Bay Area-based Neurot Recordings and founding member of revered doom-rockers Neurosis, came across an unsolicited CD-R of Grails' music that Hall had mailed to the label.

"We get a lot of demos," recounts Von Till. "Rarely does anything stand out. And Grails' music stood out instantly."

In October of last year, Neurot released Grails' debut, The Burden of Hope. Needless to say, it gave the band a little boost. "We were so blown away that Neurot wanted to work with us that the side band suddenly got pushed forward in everybody's priorities," says Hall. While the frontman had brought his fledgling group to the Make-Out Room two summers ago, this week marks its first San Francisco show since changing its name, signing with a prestigious label, and releasing its new album -- which to these ears feels like the first big step instrumental indie rock has taken in quite some time.

Of course, no band I know of enjoys seeing itself, in every article written about it, being compared to -- much less hailed as the inheritor of -- the legacy of the same one or two groups. That said, it's impossible to listen to The Burden of Hope and not be reminded of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Mogwai. You hear it in the thick-as-molasses, low-end guitar tones; in Horner's harrowing violin, which haunts the album like a painful memory you can't shake; in the general urgency of the songs, the way the notes don't so much express as hold back the flood of emotions. Grails' songs are like a scrim -- feelings of fear, sorrow, duty, and triumph writhe behind them like shadows pushing against fabric.

Hall concedes the comparisons: "Godspeed pretty much created the audience for this kind of music. Whether or not we like it, they did, so we're indebted to them." But he echoes the words of Amos, eavesdropping on our conversation, who points out, "None of us even listen to them."

"When you try to describe [Grails' music]," adds Neurot's Von Till, "you end up dropping the same three or four names that are all that matter of that genre. But they're definitely different."

This is true. Godspeed's output, for all its tortured grandiloquence, is some of the most didactic music around. Mogwai's members, who could almost be considered pop stars in England, tend to come off as cocksure, as if they know they invented this stuff. The 10 tracks on The Burden of Hope, however, are relatively short, ranging from two to six minutes; you could almost call them dirge-pop. And Hall speaks like a man who has seen enough in this world to know that his earnestness, his idealism, perhaps even his confidence should be kept a secret -- should be saved for the music, not the spotlight.

Furthermore, Grails, thanks to the motley backgrounds of its members, brings more sounds to this genre's palette than have previously existed. As Von Till notes, "They remind me sometimes of Eastern European folk music; sometimes it sounds a bit Celtic. And of course, sometimes it sounds very American, and it can give you that feeling that Americana pastoral music does without having to take as long as it takes to drive across Nevada."

But what appeals to me most about this music is its graceful, unassuming simplicity. Unlike most of the bands that Grails has been or will be compared to, there's no showing off here, no epic buildups or explosive freakouts. There's just the frail, aching beauty of a song like "Broken Ballad," on which tender, silvery guitars chirp back and forth, inviting a bass, a drum, and a thoughtful violin to join the conversation, which I like to think is about nothing more than a hard day at work, or perhaps the difficulty of choosing the right birthday present for your girlfriend. The tunes don't dance or rage; they don't prod your cerebral cortex with carefully plotted notes. They whisper, they float, and they paint a picture at once surreal and quotidian, desperate and optimistic. The burden of hope, indeed.

About The Author

Garrett Kamps

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