Let’s get this out of the way; I generally don’t like sludge. I’ve heard and enjoy a lot of the “classics” like Eyehategod, Cavity, Iron Monkey, Grief, etc etc, but honestly, the formula gets very old for me very fast. There’s only so many downtuned Sabbath worship riffs under screechy or growled vocals I can take. Graves at Sea, however, have been a band I’ve loved since the second I heard their demo Documents of Grief, which is often billed as their debut album. They take the tried and true formula of sludge, but manage to make it filthier, groovier, and just plain crushing in ways that truly made them stand out for me. When I got word a few years ago that they were reuniting and releasing new music, I was ecstatic.
The split they did with Sourvein, as well as the EP This Place is Poison were both incredibly done, and seeing them live finally at MDF two years ago had me chomping at the bit for a new full length. However, ever the cynic, I was concerned that the creative well would run dry. How far can a band really go on a signature sound that doesn’t involve a whole lot of experimentation or “progressive” tendencies? Answer? REAL fucking far. The Curse That Is deserves to be talked about in the same sentence as Come to Grief, Take As Needed For The Pain, and whatever else you consider a benchmark for the genre.
The title track that opens the album immediately grabs me. The production is cleaner than it’s ever been for these guys, and that’s a good thing, because Nick Phit’s riffs are crazier than ever. They plod along, but also pick up the pace and thunder as needed. Nate Mizerek’s vocals are very polarizing; sometimes a high pitched, “witchy” scream, and others a low, almost death metal grunt. Some people can’t get past them. I love them, and I think they are what really makes Graves at Sea stand out from their peers.
Some of the differences between The Curse That Is and Graves at Sea’s prior work is the introduction of classical guitar flourishes, melodic passages, and use of strings (I believe cello, but I may be wrong). While these are used to great effect, Graves at Sea are intelligent enough songwriters to not deviate from what makes them great. They are a sludge band through and through, and they’re not becoming Dream Theater on this record, or even moving into the more related territory of Euro-Death Doom like Paradise lost. On the fourth track “The Ashes Made Her Beautiful”, this evolution is most apparent. The song starts with a mournful cello passage, and progresses into a plodding dirge, accented with a stronger sense of melody than I’ve ever heard before from them. The stringed instruments, both cello and guitar, carry the track. I instantly fell in love. While the album as a whole is very very strong, this is the best song the band has ever written. Parts veer slightly into funeral doom territory, recalling Asunder, a phenomenal band that Graves at Sea did a split with some time ago. All of their trademarks are there, but the adventurous instrumentation is simply breath taking. I was also very glad that despite the increased “pretty” parts on The Curse That Is, they did not resort to forced clean vocals, or anything else to dilute the utter skull crushing heaviness of this album.
In a world of bands that wish they were Eyehategod or Iron Monkey, Graves at Sea are an often overlooked diamond among a sea of shit. They are miserable, plodding sludge, guaranteed to make you nod your head and reach for your favorite vice. However, on The Curse That Is, they have made strides towards expanding their sound, and done so in a way that is completely successful. I started this review saying how little I generally like sludge, but there’s no way this will not end up as one of my favorite albums of the year. Welcome back Graves at Sea, it’s damn good to have you.
Releases April 1st on Relapse Records
For Fans Of: eyehategod, Grief, Iron Monkey, Cavity, Burning Witch