Graves at Sea
The Curse That is

Portland, Oregon’s Graves at Sea and I go way, way back.  I reviewed their Documents of Grief outing before it was an official press; at the time just a handmade CD-R that the fellas put together on the fly.  Directly after its release I had the distinct honor of interviewing the band (Nate and Nick) for the sadly defunct Daredevil webzine, where yours truly got his first “official” start in the wild world of heavy music journalism.  There has been more good memories in the journey than I can even begin to recant at this point, so it’s with great pleasure that I’m reviewing the viciously sludgy, metallic doom of Graves at Sea’s latest release The Curse That Is…the band’s much deserved debut for Relapse Records and hell, their debut full-length to boot.  Listening to this record feels like coming home…

Despite a storied career with some great material to be had on EPs and splits, the band has never released a long-player until now.  Using feedback as a texture and decrepit amplifier howls for ambience, the title track kicks up an agile, mid-tempo coffin dust riff thanks to Nick Phit’s sewage clogged guitar grandeur.  Instead of driving a stake in a slovenly sludge slog, Phit changes course into a rather catchy, melody-intensive lead guitar bit that showcases vast progression from the band’s early days.  Drummer Bryan Sours hits hard but maintains coke-addled movement beneath the snaking guitar lines while the plunging, jungle thick bass foliage of Sketchy Jeff McGarrity provides cover from the burning sunlight above.  The palette is still darker than a nuclear fallout sky but it’s great to hear the quartet embrace some interesting twists to their classic formula.  Soon the riffs slow into a gristly, tooth-breaking chew of detuned sludge hobbling set to a backdrop of militant snare/tom cycling, vile low-end spillage and Nathan Misterek’s instantly recognizable vocal dementia that wavers betwixt warped blackened screams, midrange shouts and sternum-cracking roars.  McGarrity’s bass pushes beneath Nick’s dominant guitar tones for some absolutely massive doom grooves…truly infectious, head-banging stuff eschewing the Electric Wizard fuzz n’ phase for demonic power chord salvos somewhere between St. Vitus, Unearthly Trance and Indian’s more metallic take on the genre, Wake up on Fire’s blackened apocalyptic sludge/metal combo and Japanese filth lords Green Machine.  While giving you a few points of reference to check up on, let it be known that Graves at Sea were always peddling their own elixir and still do to this very day.  Numerous, careening stop/start tempo fragments allow for some excellent atonal, acerbic guitar licks with formless specters of melodic riffing played out beside a fuckin’ bonkers percussive presence with frenetic snare fills turning into tom rolls while always allowing for the conjuration of fun to follow polyrhythms.  The guitar licks that end this sucker are pure classic metal filtered through eyes blurred over with juicy, untaken care of cataracts.

The 11+ minutes of “Dead Eyes” opens with a caustic, bigger than God vintage doom riff played louder than just about anything in its genre.  Again I’m getting that fuck the world, burden on your back Reagers-era Vitus feel with some metal-laden chord twists and a lockstep, lively drum beating that always adds a few extra beats to every measure as the bass lines are guilty of gluttony on every count.  Nate’s voice turns to blackened, hook-afflicted rasps for the choruses with the music allowing the bass lines to share equal limelight with the guitars thereafter.  This shit is like the Bubonic Plague with a side of chicken pox and shingles for extra skin-peeling fun.  The ways these riffs ascend, climb and conquer and then descend back down to the Hell from whence they came is a sight to behold with the rhythm section commanding every twist and turn necessary to take them to the logical conclusion of their path of extinction.  It’s rare for such a bunch of scummongers to even bother including a chorus in their material but Graves at Sea (Nate in particular) do so here to great effect, crafting a track with endless replay value for sleazebags such as myself.  Midway through the riff lingers in a nearly melodic stasis before turning into one of the biggest goddamn doom plunders I’ve heard in recent memory.  Afterwards the guitar/bass falls back into the feedback and riff shrapnel position leaving a death march beat syncopation and those vile vocal screeches to hold the high ground for a few decisive moments until the full band comes back meaner and more riff-possessed than ever.  The real surprise here is a general outro of acoustic guitar, violin and orchestral swirls.  It’s an effective dash of gothic murder to a song that could kill you with a flick of its finger as is!

The thrash via doom introduction of “Tempest” gave me the same chills I got when I first heard Unearthly Trance’s The Trident but soon the riffing erupts into volcanic doom whose every note hits the proper cathartic crescendo while the vocals spray chunks of vomit and the rhythm section maintains this impenetrable fortress of globby thickness.  There’s some of the chunking, chewy, abscessed doom via hardcore grooves tucked inside this lovely ear canal rape dirge ala early 16 but played MUCH, MUCH heavier.  Harmonic melody licks again hint at touches of classic 70s metal and 80s thrash as the corpses of both genres drown in a tarpit filled with dinosaur bones.  What I love about these guys and always did is that despite intricate melodic touches and unusual atmospherics, their songs were always one ass-kicking, earhole fuckin’ riff after another with these gigantic chord progressions that unfold exactly how you hope and imagine they might.  While Graves at Sea will always be a cult proposition, these sickos should get a lot more credit in the heavy, sludgy doom circles.  A brief flirtation with lumbering, tom-drum heavy thrash tempos deep into the second half of this song soon rise up into some of the best destructo-doom riffs you’ll hear all year.

Serene, European influences bring back the acoustic guitars and violin in the opening moments of the gargantuan jam, “The Ashes made her Beautiful.”  Suddenly a hopelessly sludgy, sparsely notated doom riff ushers in an aura of bird flu, the bass adopts a driving yet forlorn groove and Sours pounds his kick drum and toms into oblivion…the riff that follows is ruthless doom that would make the band’s sadder sounding European counterparts scream in terror as brief bursts of busy thrash drumming and clattering found metal percussion induce endless torture.  Shimmering twinkles of starlit guitar inject melody where there should be none, only to be ripped away in a Jacob’s Ladder-like hallucination of funeral procession sludge riffs and volatile high-pitched shrieks.  The eternal depths of this song soon sink to a slothful, endless abandon akin to Asunder, Samothrace and Solinari-era Morgion with deadly yet weeping riffs and melancholic keyboards creating textures that not only evoke great emotion but threaten your very life with a knife to the throat.  Graves at Sea always took risks but in this singular track I’m hearing a side of them that I’ve never heard before.  It’s like someone climbed Mount Olympus and executed Zeus in front of all of the other gods and now we are bearing witness to his burial.  Goddamn powerful fuckin’ stuff right here…  These sprawling, expressive accoutrements are finally blown to smithereens with a quaking, bustling drum performance given a lethal dosage of controlled blackened/thrash as the regal, jeweled crown doom-riffing returns to shine brighter and more bloodied than ever before.  Some of Nathan’s sickest, nastiest screams appear right here and only up the violence quotient to a point that cannot be calculated by human mathematics.

If not for the Sabbathian chord bends in the riffs of “This Mental Sentence” one might mistake the track for a heavily medicated 80s thrash band.  The riffs are doom in theory but often have that unrelenting, oppressive cutthroat head-banging feel with a hyperkinetic drum attack to match.  At times the guitars break off into winding harmony leads that only further this assessment, although the concrete bass tones are woven strictly from a different cloth.  The pace churns its way down and finds itself burning in a furnace of sooty, smoke-choked doom yet there’s something altogether faster and more deadly about this number that illustrates the influences of Graves at Sea are vast and disparate when stacked up against some of their strictly doom adoring contemporaries.  “Waco 177” is built on an economical number of riffs, all of which are delivered with supreme conviction and overpowering blues heft.  Even when these guys trim their complexity down to the barest of bones they still write some of the best riffs in the business and the percussive technicality is always a cut above.  Distant keyboard hums enhance the atmospheres but this motherfucker prowls like Jack the Ripper through London simultaneously killing women and teasing the police whenever it damn well pleases.  This tune is one golden Vitus, Sabbath, Cavity and Soulpreacher riff after another and is all the better for it.  Those sick vocal rasps will chase away more sensitive listeners, but they don’t belong here in the first place.  I’m not overly fond of “let’s take a break” instrumental tracks on albums…they really need to be done tastefully to work out properly but this record is so intense and on top of you from the first note that “Luna Lupus Venator” is actually a welcome respite with its classical instrumentation of folk-y flamenco guitar, violin, dramatic cymbal splashes and an overall vibe that reminds me of crazy 70s lunatics Comus sans vocals.  Closer “Minimum Slave” is a wind whipping riff ride with an emphasis on ship-sinking grooves that tear through the side of your head like a cannonball at close range.  Again those sickeningly delicious classic 70s riffs are coming in loud and clear only dirtied up by nasty sludge girth and madman drumming that really exercises the quick, trick-hand work.  Everything is steeped in a Hemlock disease tea with retching vocals, rabid drum fills that are busier than most any piecemeal sludge/doom bands and viscous bass lines cutting your sanity into paper Mache dolls.

When 2016 comes to a close, The Curse That Is will stand tall and proud as one of my favorite albums of the year.  It took Graves at Sea a long fuckin’ time to deliver a full-length record but they put the work in and dropped one of the mightiest sludge/doom albums I’ve ever heard.  I’ll be playing this for days on end and years to come.  It’s truly been an honor following the band to this point.  Here’s hoping it won’t be another decade plus before we get another LP’s worth of material from this sadistic sludge cult.

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Jay S
April 7th, 2016


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