[DARK INSTRUMENTAL] Some things in Portland arrive with a roar: the exploding foliage of spring, the drunken sailor pub-crawl otherwise referred to as the Rose Parade, the noisy erection of another condo in yet-unnamed waterfront mystery neighborhood. Other things sneak up, like sleepy coffeeshops or new records by Portland’s Grails—the band legendary Brit Julian Cope refers to as “truly the shit.”
Grails’ formula is deceptively simple: two guitars, bass, drums. The local quartet’s not turning rock on its head—rather, its music is inhabiting heads. And on latest release Take Refuge In Clean Living, it continues to do so. The album begins with an electronic SOS signal that nods toward Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, signaling where the whole thing’s headed. Enter a fuzzed-out pissy bass line and a pair of Eastern-twang guitars (the song’s titled “Stoned at the Taj Again,” after all). Then, the whole package snaps to attention with the arrival of Helmet-precise aggro drums.
Smoke clears and we’re left gazing up at guitars that twinkle like stars—think Indiana Jones gazing out over a smoking twilit desert village in pensive contemplation, a final moment of rest before entering the Temple of Doom. Inevitably, a tangle of percussion and guitar chime signals full-on freakout—like a frenetic Yes jam playing at a violent, Lynchian strip club. Everything grinds down in an exhausted bass riff, a huffing bull on a hill of bones, while guitars hiss like mist in the distance and the SOS signal reprises itself, no less distressed than when it began. And that’s just the first song.
The rest of the five-song record finds Grails building tangled labyrinths and setting more booby-traps—a Ventures cover (“11th Hour”) explores the dark side of West Coast surf-rock while the next track, “Take Refuge,” pushes the band far East past the gypsies and into Mahavishnuvian grandeur. With guitarist Zak Riles now living in Kentucky and drummer Emil Amos’ double-duty as half of S.F.’s mighty doom duo OM, we’ll be seeing even less of Grails, which already barely plays its hometown. They have stated, at least, that less doesn’t mean never. Until then, Portland will have to wait for Grails to spring up again, like magic mushrooms under moonlight or mighty pyramids completed by dawn.
HEAR IT: Take Refuge In Clean Living is out now.