Tuesday, October 10, 2006
In early 2005, Grails returned to the United States after a short tour through Europe. After getting off the plane, the violinist of the group veered off from the rest of the group and was literally never heard from again. Although rumors popped up from time to time about his whereabouts, the remaining members of the band were momentarily at a loss, wondering what had happened to their bandmate of five years and three albums. After taking some time off, the group came together and started a series of new recordings, tossing most of their previous style out the window in favor of a darker, more experimental sound.
The result, for me anyway, is easily their best album since their debut and possibly their best ever. After their somewhat stale second album Redlight, this sort of sonic stew is not only completely unexpected, but pretty much just what they needed to shake free from the glut of bands doing similar styles. On Black Tar Prophecies Vol's 1, 2, & 3, the group touches on everything from smoldering psychedelia to thunderous rock that closes in on doom metal.
"Back To The Monastery" opens the disc and after some droning horns and chimes, tribal drums sweep up alongside some dark folky acoustic guitar before the second half of the track breaks out into a late 60s-inspired rockout that chases away some of the dark clouds. "Bad Bhang Recipe" drops things squarely back into a dank alley as the group shuffles along with a sort of slithering subterranean jazz track that oozes with atmosphere. They're just a setup for "Belgian Wake-Up Drill," though as the group opens with some shimmering samples before some massively sludged-out guitar riffs and pummeling polyrhythms plow the track forward into a place that one could never have imagined the group traversing a couple years ago.
The rest of the album is just as varied, with some more acoustic-based pieces that mellow things out a bit and even more places where the now quartet stretch out with new freedom and really seem to simply rejoice at having no expectations placed on their sound (as on the dub-inflected "Black Tar Frequencies"). Despite the mystery surrounding the disappearance of their band-mate, the release doesn't simply wallow in the dark for the entirety. There are still plenty of rises and falls, but this time out the excitement is not knowing at all when they're going to happen and even how the group is going to get there. Black Tar Prophecies Vol's 1, 2, & 3 is a great release from a group who jumped the rails and in doing so came up with something heady and just the right touch of heavy.Grails - black tar prophecy
Grails - belgian wake up call
In the process, Alary—who issued his debut, Sketch Proposals, on Rephlex Records in 2000 and has worked with and remixed Bjork—pushed his self-titled Ensemble release to the summit of blog-anticipation. Besides Chan Marshall, Alary corralled guest singers like Sebadoh’s Lou Barlow, Mileece, and Camille Claverie, and while none of the other cuts rivals the pillowed Spector-folk of “Disown, Delete,” his collaborations prove to be Ensemble’s most compelling cuts. Mileece fronts the wispy, faded-leaf pop of “Summerstorm,” turning crinkled tufts of guitar-stringed static and an extended saxophone bridge into a strangled breach of sound and song, at once recognizable and uninhabitable). Where Marshall suffuses Alary’s compositions with a sense of the rough and well-used, Mileece covers his pulpy noise with a fluid gloss, proving an interesting counter-lead to Marshall. Barlow, too, sounds velvet comfy in Alary’s pin-pricked ambience on “One Kind Two Minds,” where sea-drenched pianos, slow, gurgling acoustic guitars and Fennesz-like ambience plump his soft, windwood voice with feather.
Ultimately though, Ensemble struggles to fill in the corners around its lead collaborations. Alary’s atmospheric drift lacks the psychedelic brow-kneading of contemporaries like Fennesz, Caribou, or just about any artist in Type Records’ stable, and he often stumbles without a vocalist to highlight his more subtle melodic textures. Both “All I Leave Behind” and “Loose,” with Mileece and Camille Claverie respectively, are retread Stereolab pop, so anonymously pretty they’d make Julia Stiles blanch. The field recording “”Unrest” is a misplaced gush of wind in a cabin of empty space, while “For Good” mixes shifts of dense rain with the breeze wristing the trees; both mine the excited silence of an orchestra getting ready to play, the crowd stirring for the last time before first sound, awaiting the conductor’s nod, without ever starting the movement. Their attempts at dense comfort now made loud and unruly by their contextual lifelessness.
Despite these missteps, Alary has clearly proven himself an artist of intrigue in the making. He’s marked by a lack of compositional focus when forced to work completely on his own, but if he can evolve without the shadow of the Chan Marshalls and Bjorks of the experimental pop frontstage, he may well yet fuse a remarkable brand of static-folk. Until then, leave the windows open to the glad glycerine breath of this early fall and play “Disown, Delete” until winter’s new.
Ensemble - disown, delete
Ensemble - one kind two minds