Graves at Sea is the kind of band that’s tailor-made for heavy metal hype: The Curse That Is represents their first full-length after being together for fourteen years; what the band’s managed to produce – a couple of hefty splits, one EP and a one demo – has been strong enough to secure a deal with one of metal’s more prominent labels; and they’ve built a strong reputation in the underground for a caustic live show that, outside of MDF and Roadburn, has mostly been focused on the West Coast. Tack a beautiful piece of cover artwork (courtesy of Orion Landau) to the whole package and you’ve got a record that seems bound for glory before it even manages to bolt from the gate.
The reality of the matter, however, is that Graves at Sea willingly throws down a number of obstacles that will likely buck a fair portion of today’s metal population, the first of which deals with the undeniable fact that sludge of this ilk is no longer the apple of everyone’s eye, at least not like it was, say, five to ten years ago. On a personal level, outside of a handful of special cases, I’ve never been the strongest advocate of sludge with that southern swang, and there are instances here, primarily on the shorter, more upbeat cuts such as “Tempest” and “This Mental Sentence,” where Graves at Sea channel the same sort of swampheavy that birthed creeps such as Eyehategod, Sourvein or even Down. But these dudes do it really well, and it serves the greater purpose of helping to break up another of the record’s dominant hurdles: the sheer sprawl of the rest of the fare.
Five of the eight songs offered here are looooong and droning, with nary a melodic, cracklin’ lead to help split the 77 minute full journey. Hell, even a fellow such as me who looks favorably on the record would be happy to see the final 14 minute expanse of “Minimum Slave” cut and perhaps saved for later. It’s a fair enough closer, but the beautiful little instrumental that precedes it, “Luna Lupus Venator,” makes for an even better period at the end of a The Curse That Is sentence.
What Graves at Sea do right, though, they do so damned right that it ends up eclipsing barriers, and by the 3:30 mark of the opening title cut, that true intention becomes exceedingly clear: To roll over your head with all the heaviness of one of these…
I don’t recall the last time I encountered heaviness this lumbering at the hands of just one guitar, one bass and one set of drums. Pop this rascal through a nice set of speakers or beefy cans and the opening of “Dead Eyes” will land on your head like an elephant parking its ponderous keister on a dandelion. And “Waco 177” – dutifully dedicated to the biker shootout that occurred in Waco, TX in 2015 – wallops like the slowest, greasiest thunder you’ve heard in years. And let me just mention as a brief but fitting tangent, you’re probably doing sludge right when your bass player is named “Sketchy Jeff.”
Obliterating heaviness aside, what’s also quite satisfying about the Graves at Sea approach is the way the band chooses to color the tapestry surrounding that deadly-big combo of guitar/bass/drums. A clear sense of tragedy swings in the overall atmosphere here, not just due to the record’s blanketing lumbersomeness and the doomy blight infused in Nick Phit’s guitar work, but also because of the beautifully crushing violin (Alex Carson) that touches the closing moments of “Dead Eyes” and throughout the fantastic “The Ashes Made Her Beautiful” and the aforementioned short instrumental, “Luna Lupus Venator.” I’d take a lot more of that fiddle, to be honest, because a dusty, western sort of desperation matches up handsomely with dire sludge of this nature.
Lastly, a special tip of the lid is due toward vocalist Nathan Misterek, whose well-worn rasp brings just the right amount of sinister vibe to complete the trip. All the years of grinding his cords via GaS and Laudanum (R.I.P.) haven’t stripped away any of his bite, but there’s a strange warmth to the way he delivers these well thought-out lines, so the words feel a bit like ominous whispers being spit out by a slithering Rudyard Kipling ssssssssnake. Certainly one of the bigger selling points for The Curse That Is.
All too often, album reviews end up closing with some statement about a release being “not for everyone.” It’s an easy escape, mostly, because no album will ever scratch everyone’s itch. In the case of The Curse That Is, the album’s level of necessity very simply relies on just how much you love it insanely gradual, greazy and, above all else, HEAVY. It probably won’t be the easiest listen you’ll have this year, but then, lingering crushers such as this ain’t always intended to be the most comfortable ride.
Raise all your glasses, we’re doomed from the start.