Doom metal has more than its fair share of legends. Obviously Black Sabbath sit high on their hill surveying the carnage they started 40 years ago. Bobby “Old Man Steptoe” Liebling bumbles around like a mad court jester with an ever changing Pentagram. Trouble are the Beatles worshipping peacenik hippies. Saint Vitus are the dirty biker gang running through town drinking all the beer and dodging the soap. Cathedral bring the crazy prog and Electric Wizard have the bongs and horror (and a seemingly endless collection of pictures of naked 70’s chicks with huge titties and massive bushes) and so the list goes on. Victor Griffin is no less deserving of the title, however with a career that spans over 30 years and includes Death Row, Pentagram and, since 2000, Place of Skulls.
Now I have to admit my only previous experience of the band was the “With Vision” album which I picked up primarily due to the involvement of Griffin’s good friend Wino. It’s a solid album that did spawn the classic “Last Hit” but Wino’s presence did dominate. On this latest offering, however, Griffin shows that, not only is he more than a match for Wino, he holds his own with anyone else out there on the doom scene. With so many bands now seeming intent on tuning as low as their guitars can take and playing desperately slow in some assumed vision of what constitutes doom, Griffin comes from the old school and knows that doom, like any other form of metal, is built around great riffs, dynamic structures and enormous melodies which “As A Dog Returns” delivers by the truckload.
Kicking off with “The Maker” it’s immediately apparent that we’re in for a classic ride. The riff is mighty, the groove could make a rhino boogie on down and Griffin’s time worn vocals sound majestic. There’s no denying that his voice is uncannily close to Wino’s in timbre yet Griffin has more control and range giving him the scope to stretch out melodically. Lyrically it has to be said that much of this album is inspired by Griffin’s Christian beliefs but for the atheists among you (and I wholeheartedly hold my hands up to that) this can be easily overlooked as the music speaks far louder than the words though Griffin’s obvious passion for the subject does come across in his singing.
“Breath of Life” is a more restrained piece of work more akin to the idea of true doom with a soaring and shifting melody and a guitar solo that is pure Iommi and could have come from any of Sabbath’s later albums. Mention does have to be made about Griffin’s playing in general. Throughout it is nothing short of breathtaking whether it’s the sheer emotional and physical weight of each riff, the dexterity of his lead work or the inventiveness of his arrangements which see guitars subtly layered and orchestrated to create a huge wall of sound.
“Though He Slay” shows Griffin’s grasp of melody stretched further as he heads into more mainstream territory. If doom is ever likely to come close to pop this is it without sacrificing the heaviness that one would expect. It wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to expect to see this on MTV…if it hadn’t become such a forum for mindless wank!!! Up next “Psalm” starts in a low key fashion with a simple clean guitar and a “Planet Caravan” style percussion line before heading into more traditional territory with yet another elephantine riff pulled from Griffin’s back pocket. It sounds as though Tim Tomaselli is attempting to punch through his snare drum head with each beat such is the drive of the groove and Griffin proceeds to piss on all the competition with another sterling display of axe heroics.
Griffin is once again in contemplative mood on “Dayspring” which also tips it hat to the mainstream. Ballad style refrains gives way to another monstrous wall of orchestrated doom in an epic running for nearly 9 minutes and dominated by more of that exceptional guitar wizardry. If I did believe that God existed I’m pretty certain he’d be sick to death of listening to the moribund shit they peddle in church or that lame acoustic bollocks that masquerades as Christian music, he’d get his groove on to Place of Skulls and see it as a far more fitting tribute and this song in particular is the perfect vehicle to display the Place of Skulls main man’s faith.
Place of Skulls aren’t in this to out heavy anyone, just to make the best album possible so when “Timeless Hearts” is heralded by a military beat and a lonesome harmonica it’s possible to see that the band aren’t afraid to step outside their comfort zones and look to new ideas. When the tune eventually kicks in it once again shows that they have an eye on the bigger picture with a riff that Tony Iommi would have killed to write in the 80’s to bring Sabbath out of their slump.
Throughout this album the blues is always at the heart of Griffin’s playing and singing so it’s certainly not out of place to include a cover of Steppenwolf’s “Desperation”. Never having heard the original I can say that this version is pretty faithful to the Humble Pie version…with added doom…and organ!!! That Place of Skulls are able to cover a song seemingly a million miles away from what would normally be considered as doom yet make it fit so seamlessly with their own material shows the crossover potential of the band outside the genre into the metal and rock worlds at large.
The title track rounds things off pulling together the varied styles on offer elsewhere into one tune like the final piece in the puzzle. A mellow intro surges in a fuck off great big fortress of dirty grooving doom and so you don’t forget who’s in charge, Griffin peels off yet another dizzying solo.
Unfortunately I don’t see this album making Place of Skulls superstars or millionaires but for the enlightened few that do pick it up they will be treated to an understated classic. This is so much more than a great doom album, this is an exceptional metal album full stop and worthy of so much more attention than I fear it will receive.
Scribed by: Ollie Stygall