“Back in the Ground” starts off album number four like the Graf Orlock of old—a brilliant melange of movie samples that take a new life when pulled out of context and grafted onto some Pig Destroyer-meets-Kill ‘em All-meets-Brutal Truth riffology. Add to that the irreverence and side-long glance humour that has driven the band since inception and it looks like Examination of Violent Cinema, Vol. 1 is set to be another incendiary feather in the cap of the world’s premiere cine-grind band.
For the unaware, Graf Orlock began in 2003 as a protest to its original members being kicked out of UCLA’s film school for plagiarism. Their response was, naturally, to form a grindcore band that protested their dismissal but also pointed a finger at Hollywood for not making action movies the way they used to back in the ‘80s. Makes as much sense as it doesn’t, but a series of top-notch albums and EPs have followed over the years (not to mention some of the most amazing packaging and merch designs ever! Much respect to the ongoing creativity of drummer Alan Hunter).
Graf Orlock’s song titles are actually DVD chapter titles and their song lyrics are straight film dialogue. Apparently, they didn’t learn a thing about plagiarism, but it’s produced some incredible music, regardless of your thoughts on the gimmick. It helps quite a bit that riffs are the name of the game here. Guitarist/co-vocalist, Jason Schmidt is one of extreme music’s most underrated riff machines. He picks a starting point and delivers a dynamic bevy of choppy flourishes, single-note parries and power chord migrations that eschew repetition and often resolve like classical music pieces.
Most previous Graf Orlock opuses have focused on ‘80s and ‘90s action movies and recognizable epics. Their previous album, Crime Traveller actually revolved around a script the band wrote for an independent feature flick they themselves are apparently still in the process of bringing to life. In the meantime, along comes Examination of Violent Cinema, Vol. 1 an album that kinda flips the script in the world according to Graf Orlock.
Examination is a progression in the sense that this collection of songs is based on movies released in 2017. This may allow for connections to be fostered between the band and voracious consumers of recent celluloid offerings. In the case of your intrepid reviewer, however, if a movie made in the last few years doesn’t have something to do with Star Wars, Michael Myers or some subtitled weirdness from Asia I found on Netflix, I likely know nothing about it. The bio says that Examination is a treatise on “the rigor mortis of the vapid film industry,” an angle new to the Graf Orlock M.O. Accordingly, their musical angle takes a new tack as well.
In addition to the rage of the aforementioned opener and the following handful of tracks, “A Man Named Suicide” takes the song’s middle third into an audio territory where grind is crammed down the throat of classic rock and Hollywood chase/gun battle sequences. Next track, “Five Stars General” sees the solar panel-powered velocity retreat behind a veil of slower moving darkness that ends up being as creepy as it is sludgy.
“Minimum Freedom” is a more mid-paced rocker that has bassist Bryce Hurlson jumping into a Crowbar endorsed fat suit to push the NOLA sounding mid-section. Of course, it grinds out a light speed ending, but the band does demonstrate an improved sense of synthesis to their songwriting. “Extreme Measures” is the most punk sounding they’ve ever presented as, nudging up against the melodic side of that world before taking a turn towards southern rock and caustic grind.
Album closer “Almost Human” is a standout for old Graf heads like me. It hearkens back to the days when the samples made a more integrative appearance in the music, where they were placed to work as part of the song, not just appearing as introductions. The track itself has its mood and tempos broken up by audio snippets from some movie I’ve never seen (though long ago I declared that if Graf Orlock did a song about a particular movie, it must be worth seeing at some point) and swings from a propulsive up-tempo burl to some fist-banging mania drenched in triplet flourishes, Hetfield-inspired down picking and hardcore gang vox.
Examination will be a different beast for those with knowledge of the band. Not so much to be alienating, but enough to keep the shtick exciting, interesting and worthy of one’s time. That it comes packaged in "a body bag containing a fully-sealed LP jacket with perforations in a triangle like an autopsied corpse… you have to rip open the perforations to get into the record and get it out," makes it all the more enticing. Thankfully, the bells and whistles are surpassed by the content within.