Listening to Grails is like hearing the soundtrack for a movie you’ve never seen.
Close your eyes and you’ll swear you can smell the musty, dead air of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, feel the rumble of galloping horses’ hooves thundering through a dusty old town and see Clint Eastwood’s wry grin as he spins the chamber of his six-shooter.
Yes sir, music doesn’t come more visceral, or more wonderfully nostalgic than this.
But while Grails possess the ability to turn a drive to your grandma’s house into a high-stakes car chase – it’s always a tough proposition to transmit music that is practically begging for context into a live setting.
With all six members crammed onto the intimate stage of the Northcote Social Club, this Portland based band damn near pulled it off (sonically at least).
Grails is – in every sense of the word – the sum of its parts. Each member so obviously brings a different style to the musical canvas, and even in their appearance their influences seem worlds apart. Handsome ambient synth-playing bassist? Check. Ballsy looking drummer? Check. Nerdy guitarists? Check.
Cheech from Cheech and Chong? Um, check? Ok that one was a surprise.
But it all makes sense when the band members start swapping instruments at will, displaying such a scary proficiency at each that the audience begins to forget who plays what.
This is what makes watching Grails a treat. While so many bands stick to the safety of carefully orchestrated setlists and strong preparation – Grails offer something that is more akin to knocking back a few brews and watching friends jam out in their garage.
Whether it was a 20-minute delay to begin the show, the frequent, feedback-filled breaks to swig from a bottle of Jamieson, or awkward choice of opening number – Grails did away with presentation and seemed to do as they please.
While casual fans looking for an early night probably weren’t amused with the main act’s tardy start, local favourites Laura at least left the room buzzing with their closing number “Mark the Day”.
When Grails emerged, sans any kind of explanation for the delay, they quickly got stuck into a set that contained several tracks from their most recent album Future Politics, as well as a few older numbers thrown in for good measure.
The group really seemed to enjoy playing their new material, which departs from the drone inspired Doomsdayers Holiday era to offer lively basslines and shimmering 12 string guitar riffs. Among the new tracks, “Almost Grew My Hair” was a crowd favourite – with the catchy lap steel and slide guitar melodies wailing their way into the upper octaves. Instruments that, moments ago, had produced music with such a psychedelic edge were suddenly transported onto the prairies of the American West. Grails are, at times, the musical equivalent of sitting in a saloon on Mars.
Leaving the west in their dust, it was then time to cross the Pacific. Some of the more exotic instruments may have been left behind in Oregon, but a sampler sufficed for the snake-charming sounds of ‘Reincarnation Blues’.
Whether by choice, or simply because of stage positioning, bassist Bill Slater seemed to conduct the band from the front. An awkward frontman-of-sorts, he seemed to get more involved as the show progressed, making way for soloing band members and helping to launch build-ups and breakdowns with his a series of head nods. He performed the role well, smoothly navigating the awkward, horror movie intro of “All The Colours Of The Dark” to ensure the band got the most out of its epic climax.
Returning to more standard post rock fair, Grails also touched on their 2008 album Burning off Impurities. The track “Origin-ing” was given an awesome new interpretation via a pair of beastly drum solos – a rarity in a genre that prides itself in putting the band over the individual.
The encore, although beginning with a humble guitar/piano combination, predictably descended into an all-out jam – with each band member showcasing their skills over a more traditional, noisy arrangement.
Put up a screen showing any classic film from the last 100 years, and Grail’s music may make more sense. But being privy to the construction of music with such cinematic quality is almost like having an audience with the director. It is a chance to see where things are placed, and why – and to appreciate the skill of the auteur rather than just letting the mind drift into the focused daze of a dark cinema.
Given the amount of vinyl being snapped up at the merch stand, it’s pretty clear that this type of music belongs to the purists – those that would rather dissect and discuss than revel in a sweaty mosh-pit. But so what if Grails’ most spectacular moments are best enjoyed on record? The fact that they can come halfway to the other side of the world and present their material in such a spirited, yet spartan way essentially proves their music doesn’t require any visual or imaginative prop to frame it.
But it is still, by far the best soundtrack to any drive to grandmas house.