Grails and Chalices

Grails is not so much a band as a force. The Portland based outfit has branded themselves not with a sound or formula but with an intensity that stretches the continuum of their expansive releases. Whether the five-piece is skating down Middle Eastern melisma or churning out some doomy metal riffs, Grails focuses their whole beings into the music. And this is par the course for Chalice Hymnal, the band’s first release in six years. The album’s grooves burst with grinding electronics, heavy riffs, and driving percussion.

Beginning with its title track and single, Chalice Hymnal wastes no time establishing its tone and scope. Full of swelling dirges and brooding interludes, “Chalice Hymnal” slowly boils its listeners in its ever increasing washes of sound. Equal parts drone and pummel, this opening track starts the album off with a kick, a kick that is followed up with exquisite musicianship and structuring.

Moving from “Chalice Hymnal” into the other songs of the album, Grails seems not to want to stay mired in the same tempo. “Pelham” has an urgency that is apparent from its first notes, while “Empty Chamber” is glacial (and even features some hazy vocals). The result is an album that twists and turns as it spins. Throughout Chalice Hymnal, Grails refuses to retread past territory (even when songs like “Deeper Politics” give a nod to their back catalogue).

But not everything is hazy. “Tough Guy” has a slow start, but when it sinks its teeth in, it has a gnarled bite. The song lands somewhere between The Shape of Punk to Come by Refused and Engravings by Forest Swords. Mesmerizing and stuck in its groove, “Tough Guy” is a muted anthem, a track for nighttime mischief, and the perfect midpoint to this album.

From start to finish, Chalice Hymnal has a definite soundtrack vibe. Its taut arrangements and well orchestrated movements work with each other to make something that is simultaneously a snarling behemoth and a collective of really intense tracks. Hints of Dungen’s Haxan and even old Italian thrillers (think Tentacoli and Suspiria) sneak around the fringes of Chalice Hymnal. The album pays homage to these epics without being a carbon copy of what these soundtracks established.

And one of these homages comes in the album’s third single, “Deep Snow II.” Building its tension as its lead twirls around itself, “Deep Snow II” unfurls part Western and part Noir. Grails somehow manages to balance these aesthetics to make a track that begins the last third of the album.

Chalice Hymnals has the trademark intensity that Grails brings to every one of their releases. That said, the album shows more attention to cohesion, to building an album that is a single movement. Gliding between the two poles of burning riffs and spacey soundscapes, Chalice Hymnals is the experimental rock album we needed in 2017.

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