With its eclectic, eco-friendly vibe, Portland, OR’s earth-centered urbania meets hipster-hippie chic has made it ripe for satirical comedo-drama (check Portlandia), but its cooler, more sinister underbelly hides some of the best and most vicious secrets. Note the front of any vintage Sunn amplifier and you’ll remember Portland/Tualatin’s own Norm Sundholm as the iconic father of that retro-future tonal doom lifeline. Today, a casual stroll through Jackpot or Mississippi Records (the latter just a mere hole in the wall, sharing real estate with a modest but chops heavy sandwich shop) and you might just find that impossibly hard to find 7” by artist X from rock’s true analog heyday – band in question, Graves At Sea – Nick Phit (guitars), Nathan Misterek (vocals), Jeff McGarrity (bass), and Bryan Sours (drums), stuck a black flag in the dirt and now calls this humble land home, and as the great equaliser, employs death and the decimating riff as the ultimate muse, abandoning anything remotely linked to earth preservation.
The Curse That Is (Relapse Records) is a densely packed and gloriously morose slab of progressive sludge and doom; it bluntly dissects every angle of the dissolving human condition – insanity, addiction, loss, occult worship, murder – all meshed together like whiskey and Drano to corrode both mind and spirit. The band’s been kicking ass and taking names, with an ever-growing shit list of targets since their This Place Is Poison EP landed in 2014. With appearances at Maryland Deathfest and Roadburn that same year, and a stellar split with Sourvein for good measure, talk of an imminent full length was enough to stir even the deadest of hearts; despite their earlier absence from the scene, letdown was never an option on this one, as the Graves At Sea cultus has evolved to near religious absolutism – no one really questions the explicit threat of a maniacal serial killer, even if he (or it) goes dormant for a decade.
Mastered by Brad Boatright (Sleep, YOB), and engineered by Greg Wilkinson (Noothgrush, Brainoil), The Curse That Is is not only a mammoth step forward from a production standpoint, but a sizable leap forward in writing and execution – its complexity of arrangements and epic scope make the fourteen years since the group’s inception seem like an appropriate incubation period for this untamable beast of a record. Clocking in at 70+ minutes, the album is a hell of a long bloodbath to slosh through, and with four of the eight tracks extending past 11 minutes, once you dig in, there’s no reprieve.
The title track explodes from an intro of dissonant feedback – a NWOBHM groove anchors the cut in mid-tempo sludge, the vigorous Sours/McGarrity rhythm section giving Phit the necessary backdrop to unleash in full. Misterek screams, “…We aren’t chosen, we are born/ Get off your knees, and take what is yours…” Well clearly when it comes to the group’s game plan, they’re speaking from experience, as this number, and the ferocious Tempest, with its dynamic bridging atonal arpeggios claw for the jugular with unnerving precision – Dead Eyes is yet another winner and testament to the band’s ‘take no prisoners’ approach; the track’s slow pulsations like a blacksmith hammer to the skull, Misterek’s nihilistic musings barked with pure acerbic rasp – “…Dead eyes, void heart/Bleeding out the sympathy…” The message is unapologetic in its brutal honesty, much like the band’s trademark sound.
The inclusion of violin (courtesy of Alex Carlson) and acoustic strings, both as accents (final moments of Dead Eyes) and textural atmospherics (check centerpiece cut, The Ashes Made Her Beautiful) adds to the overwhelmingly somber vibe of The Curse That Is – The Ashes Made Her Beautiful, in particular, is the group’s real triumph; channeling some of the finer elements of funeral doom and gothic metal, the song beautifully marries both styles with a deftness reminiscent of early 90s My Dying Bride. At over 15 minutes, the track is near cinematic in sweep and vision, and this darkly romantic story is told in the best possible way – twisting, building, grinding to climax “…Passing decade extinguished/ Ashes make her beautiful/ White vessel memory/ Ashes make her beautiful…” Misterek repeats variations on this verse as the arrangements swell to a blistering conclusion of controlled chaos. This Mental Sentence and Waco 177 reset the dial, placing our asses firmly in the crosshairs – the latter drips with palpable spleen, its gargantuan heft like a ten ton melting wall; Phit’s tasteful pinch harmonics adding that little ‘fuck yeah’ at just the right moment – and there really isn’t a wrong moment over the album’s span.
Once the fourteen minute mind fuck of a closer, Minimum Slave ends in a slurry of feedback you’re brought to ground zero all over again. After a few minutes to collect your teeth and soak up the blood, you’ll realise that sonic masochism is the new sport du jour – and Graves At Sea are arguably the next great sadistic masters, churning out an easy contender for metal album of the year. But if you’re like me, you’ve known this was inevitable. Betting on black? That’s an easy gamble.
Scribed by: Jeremy Moore