We’ve spoken a lot about the importance of atmosphere in post-rock, post-metal, and other instrumental rock music here on this site. Cinematic music that is more concerned about mood, texture, and sense of place than any particular riffs or technical prowess often gets a bad rap from many looking to be actively engaged and hooked in. There’s something to be said for music that possesses the transportive quality though. Songs and albums that are able to construct entire sonic worlds within the span of a few minutes, evoke the senses in strong ways, and create a full sense of immersion are difficult to pull off well, but when done right allow the listener to form bonds with the music in ways that few other sounds can.
For Grails, who share members from other prominent instrumental and psychedelic acts including OM, Holy Sons, Lilacs & Champagne, and Watter, this quality and ability has always been their ace in the hole. Over six albums, a couple of standalone EPs, and an ongoing collection of EPs – Black Tar Prophecies – the band have wandered through a musical space that intersects with many of the qualities of classic post-rock/metal with a constantly changing set of influences from psychedelic music, stoner rock, ambient, classic film soundtracks, and more. Though the general feel of each release has varied, one thing has remained a constant – the band’s unrivaled ability to transport the listener to concrete, living, breathing spaces for an extended period of time. Their latest full-length, Chalice Hymnal, which also happens to be their first in 6 years, is an absolute master class in this even as they revisit many of the sonic touchpoints throughout their career.
Similar to their previous LP, Deep Politics, whose listening experience could be described as entering an old mansion and finding each room to be elaborately beautiful and mysterious in completely different ways, Chalice Hymnal finds its strength less in any overarching themes and styles and more as a collection of self-contained and richly-developed worlds. From the more energetic tracks befitting a spy thriller like the pulsing piano of “Pelham” and the James Bond-on-psychedelics of “Deeper Politics” to pure mood setters like “Empty Chamber” and haltingly gorgeous “Rebecca,” each track feels like a small slice of a cinematic soundtrack begging for visuals to match. Upon first listen this can be a bit frustrating as each piece is so wonderfully rendered that you want to hear far more of each theme and world before moving on, but multiple listens allow the listener to form their own connective tissue between tracks and simply sink into deep immersion throughout the album’s duration.
Perhaps due to both the passage of time since their last proper release and where they see themselves in their career, Chalice Hymnal is also far more self-referential than any other Grails release outside of possibly the Black Tar Prophecies series. Two tracks, “Deeper Politics” and “Deep Snow II” are very worthy sequels to their Deep Politics counterparts, and several other tracks hit upon that same “spaghetti western meets film noir” hybrid that defined much of that album. “New Prague” feels like a welcome holdover from the dirtier, more clearly Sabbath influenced work off of the earlier Black Tar Prophecies EPs and Doomsdayer’s Holiday. “Thorns II” would have fit in perfectly well in the more acoustically-focused Burning Off Impurities, and “Tough Guy” is nothing if not the middle eastern and “oriental” (as in originating from the Orient) themes of that album and Take Refuge In Clean Living EP filtered through a more retrowave and futuristic framework. Mercifully, none of these references feel recycled or ham-fisted though and instead provide an interesting long view of where the band have been and how they continue to evolve even as they employ many of the same musical themes and influences.
Chalice Hymnal is absolutely more than an homage to their body of work though. The fresh sounds and influences they bring in throughout puts the album in a league of its own, particularly on tracks like the gloomy Forest Swords-like ambience of “Empty Chamber,” the aforementioned Blade Runner-appropriate “Tough Guy,” the velvet haze of “Rebecca,” the haunting fretless bass that forms the backbone of “The Moth & The Flame,” and the lush and mysterious sounds of “After the Funeral” that scream for a spy/noir film to play over. Though it’s far more wide-ranging and diverse than any previous Grails release, it manages to hold together just as well by its consistently brilliant quality. Whether fans consider it to be their best album may depend on what quality of their sound they prefer, but for listeners interested in giving the band a chance, Chalice Hymnal is unquestionably the best representation of what they can offer. Sit back, press play, close your eyes, and prepare yourself to be carried away by some of the best that instrumental music can offer.