A triumphant and deeply underrated record.
Post-rock can be a difficult genre to get into. The heavy hitters of the sound all create noises that don’t seem to be of this world. Sigur Rós’ music bubbles up from Atlantis, Explosions in the Sky layer everything in a movie-ready sepia tone and Godspeed You! Black Emperor paint chilling dystopian skylines. Although Godspeed’s apocalyptic nightmares mirror reality more and more every day, it’s not exactly easy music in which to become immersed. That’s what makes Grails’ The Burden of Hope such an important record—it may just be the perfect gateway drug into post-rock.
But this is not “Baby’s first post-rock album.” Instead, it’s a more palatable and sleek record that knows its strengths well. Namely, a solid rock backbone and a complete mastery of dynamic shifts. It’s an exceptionally confident album, a fact made all the more impressive by the understanding that this was Grails’ debut.
The Portland group originally went by the name of Laurel Canyon, and the folky connections to that space still remained on The Burden of Hope. Though generally considered an experimental band, there are traces of folk and country here and there, nearly making this an Americana album put through the filter of F#A# ∞. The obvious reason for that is the addition of violin and occasional steel guitar (from Timothy Horner and Emil Amos respectively) but it goes further than that. Anyone can throw a fiddle on a record, it takes talent to make it work. The death dirge “The Deed” is lead by Horner’s haunting violin, conjuring up images of ghost stories around a campfire. In a less dread-filled example, his swooning strings are the key to mid-album prayer “Invocation.”
Despite Horner occasionally becoming the MVP of these songs, he never over takes any of them. During this time, Grails often switched instruments mid-show and that round robin practice clearly has an influence on The Burden of Hope. Yes, some instruments have more impact on certain songs (and Amos’ percussion is the glue that holds the album together), but it’s a very democratic sounding album. None of these songs seem to have been recorded in a sterile studio environment, instead it seems more likely that the group gathered around one microphone and belted these tunes out. That certainly comes into play on both the album’s more explosive moments and the somber meditations like “The March,” which has each player layering a mournful line before the next performer carries that emotion farther.
“The March” is also a great example of just how beautiful The Burden of Hope can be. Weary second track “Lord I Hate Your Day” is almost just exhausted guitar and “In the Beginning” adds a sprinkling of piano and a near jazz feel to the stark song. But the second half of the album is where Grails really showed their compositional chops. After “The March,” the closing trio of “Broken Ballad,” “White Flag” and “Canyon Hymn” are all stellar proclamations of how gorgeous and restrained post-rock can be. “White Flag” may explode in its final moments into a cacophony of strings, but its center is still based around Wiliam Slater’s humming piano in time with the guitars fading in and out of the background.
Every one of these aspects comes together on the album’s centerpiece, “Space Prophet Dogon.” It’s a cover of experimental rockers Sun City Girls, but Grails make it their own thanks to their unique combination of skills. The center melody is a folky and joyous thing, easy to listen to on repeat and it seems to become stronger and giddier with every repetition. The violin, guitar and bass swirl together over the melody again and again, allowing for quick breathers before jumping back into the fray. There’s something wonderfully primal about it, and with many of the other song titles referencing spiritual ceremonies, “Space Prophet Dogon” seems to be an ode to the beginning of spring, all bursting flower blossoms and glee.
“Glee” is not a word associated with a lot of post-rock, but it absolutely belongs plastered on parts of The Burden of Hope. It’s a triumphant and deeply underrated record, both on its own accord and how it works within the genre. It serves as both a gateway drug to and a standout in post-rock.