It was always going to be a hell of a thing to listen objectively to the first Early Graves album since the tragic death of the band’s vocalist Makh Daniels in a bus accident in 2010. As important as it is to judge the album on its own merits, to attempt to ignore its context completely might also do a disservice to the very real specter of loss and transition that surrounds it.
Not having spoken with the band members, I can’t say what course this album might have taken in the absence of that terrible accident. Of course, it’s possible that the band would have produced an identical album with Daniels, but it will be nearly impossible for any listener aware of the band’s recent experience with tragedy to hear this album without relating it to that very real source of grief and anger.
Thankfully, Red Horse is a storming success precisely because of the way it howls into the void, but also stitches together an indomitable survivalism. In the process, grief seems transmuted to resolve, but the latter never erases the former; both exist in a taut, nervy embrace.
Early Graves has recruited John Strachan (of The Funeral Pyre) to take over vocal duties, which turns out to be an excellent decision because he is a capable vocalist in his own right, but also because his tone is nowhere near Daniels’. Strachan’s voice is probably closest to a Jacob Bannon- or Steve Austin-style rasp, with an extra corrosive patina of black metal. On paper, that sounds ill-fitting for Early Graves’ shit-kicking crust / d-beat / hardcore style, but his execution is full-throated and convincing.
Because of the ground-level punk rawness of the album, it feels at first blush like a drums-driven record, for good or ill. (Likely for good: Since you are reading a heavy metal website, I will assume you have at least some base affinity for angry humans making loud noises in complex, aggressive patterns.) Closer listens reveal exceptionally crafty guitar sorcery buried and twisted and gnawed on at every turn. See, for example, the deceptively acrobatic chords that open “Apocalyptic Nights,” and are eventually doubled and harmonized.
What really gives Red Horse its thrilling wildness, though, is its sound. Unlike previous album Goner, which felt much more of a piece with many of the similar acts mining the whatever-the-hell-you-want-to-call-the-genre-Southern Lord-ditched-doom-for genre, the production of Red Horse is thin but crunched. It’s clattery, stretched, crackling, live, rattling, and desperate, and it takes a bit of getting used to. Listen, for example, to the brief guitar solo in the middle of “Misery,” and how it has to writhe and struggle to free itself from that flat yet fidgety horizon. Gradually, that rawness eases, opens up, and begins to feel like home.
Still, while the songs are as furious and pulsating with punkish fervor as ever, the band’s guitars are allowed to play a much more melodic role, if in somewhat fleeting doses. Witness the twin guitar harmonics that open “Skinwalker,” the warm lead-fragment that pops up in a verse of “Days Grow Cold,” and the patient, stalking midtempo arpeggios that accompany “Death Obsessed.” These are examples of guitars used always in the service of mood and compositional integrity, rather than as flashy accoutrements.
Life is a procession of wounds, rehabilitations, and occasional victories. Nowhere is that embodied more poignantly than on the devastating final half of album closer “Quietus,” with its recursive, melodic rhythm guitar figure, languid pacing, and harmonized guitar lead. The song piles layer upon layer, intensity upon intensity, and fills the heart full to bursting. Red Horse bristles with an impatient, electric energy even as it channels that energy into some truly inspired songwriting. It doesn’t try to be an overt tribute to the band’s fallen comrade; instead, it’s a heavy album that stomps and snorts and finds new ways to kick ass. Which, ultimately, is the best tribute.