Maybe my perception of things is skewed, misguided or just plain ol’ wrong, but it was a surprise to discover that not only is The Curse That Is Graves at Sea’s first official full-length, but that the west coast bruisers aren’t more of a dominating force on the doom/sludge scene. Why, I remember seeing the band at the old Emissions From the Monolith Fest back in 2006 and witnessing a room full of bearded burnouts and dreadlocked dirtbags swaying in euphoric unison to the grumbling menace emerging from their beaten up wall of amplification. And speaking of which, one of my favourite memories of said weekend remains seeing guitarist Nick Phit, during the noisescape introduction, ritualistically pressing and bending his guitar neck against a speaker cabinet as ceremonial peals of feedback shifted air and we stood stage-side, watching and waiting for his fretboard to snap into kindling. It was this act that got me thinking about how all those dingbats who talk about slow motion music and noise as a religious/transformative experience might not be such dingbats after all. And it offered a possible explanation as to why Sunn O))) was headlining, but I digress. They ruled and I thought everyone far and wide thought similarly.
Personal recollections aside, Graves at Sea has been around since 2002 (minus a 2008-20012 hiatus), have had their materials released on some respected labels (Eolian Empire, Seventh Rule), their merch adorns as many dirty dudes and dudettes as Thou shirts and patches, but I was somewhat stunned to see they’ve only recently tipped the five figure tally in Facebook likes (because, as everyone knows, Facebook popularity is always an accurate barometer of what’s going on in the real world) and some of the off-the-beaten track venues they'll be playing on their upcoming U.S. tour. But hey, the quartet is now shacked up with Relapse and maybe the actual reality of their profile will catch up to the assumed one of my imagination. And if it doesn’t, well then there’s something seriously wrong with the world because The Curse That Is is an absolute fucking monster.
What stands out as this album’s most potent strength is the band’s ability to deliver the most crushing sounds, monolithic tones and misanthropic atmosphere in paeans that are as ridiculously catchy as any bunch of thrashers or those on the melodic side of tectonic metal’s continuum. Think Dream Death, Cathedral and old Baroness, but also think Forbidden, Exodus and Slayer (minus the leads). And once all those are gathered, let’s have Burning Witch, Thorr’s Hammer, Inter Arma, YOB and Amenra drizzle smoldering black tar over all involved parties.
First track, the title track, intros with the sound of what could be concrete slabs compressing a power lifter’s lungs accompanied by feedback screeches before it kicks into a glorious fretboard-walking riff that throws in hippy-ish, stoner rock trills and assumes confrontational dourness, like that time Neurosis toured with Eyehategod in 1997. Still, a memorable arrangement remains, one that’ll stick in your head, even while you’re using your enemies' cheekbones to bloody up your knuckles. The next tune, the eleven minute “Dead Eyes” follows along the same path as a shifty series of chords is wrangled into an upbeat tribal thud with a chorus that screams tension and release. The result is another hummable hammer to the teeth, though the brief slowdown in the mid-section and the precarious acoustic guitar and cello at the end throw a bit of a wrench into the overall impact. If there’s an initial weakness to The Curse That Is it’s the brief incorporation of this eerie-sounding instrumentation here, throughout “Luna Lupus Venator” and the colossal Sleep-meets-Frost-being-digested-in-the-Sarlaac rumble of “The Ashes Made Her Beautiful.” Though with repeated listens, what first presented as elements struggling to stay in tune worked their rustic charm and became indispensable mood enhancers. At the same time, any whiff of negative air is blown away by Nathan Misterek’s acid-bathed vocal chords. In doom/sludge circles, his voice has been widely recognised as an altar that the filthiest of fuckfaces bow down and worship at and on the debut he unleashes a scathing rebuke to unintelligible black bear growls. He keeps his odes to misery, disenfranchisement, heartache and poor life decisions as clean and clear as Diet 7UP, and just as deceptively deadly – that’s Misterek: the aspartame of the metal world.
Other highlights include the off-to-the-races, bluesy feel of “This Mental Sentence” where washes of well-placed cymbal crashing percolate through Bryan Sours’ atomic drums and accent a remarkably catchy, yet still inky and bleak, riff. As well, closer “Minimum Slave” makes 14-plus minutes seem like less than half that with its channelling of inner demons via a coruscating churn of slab-dragging guitars and B-52 bomber bass.
Whether it comes from the years of experience in all aspects of being a band except for the actual creation of a full-length, The Curse That Is pummels with unprecedented precision and an all-around aura of excitement in despondency. This is an additional arena in which Graves at Sea is triumphant: sounding like a unit bristling with animated energy and freshness despite having produced a work no one would be surprised to find playing at the scene of a grizzly murder-suicide. You know how you’ll hear people talk about how you have a lifetime to write your first album? Graves at Sea’s lifetime leading up to its debut’s torpedo landing may be unconventional, but it’s fully justified as you can hear the musical anguish and life lessons learned being poured into the material. We’re not being melodramatic or histrionic when we say this sets a new standard for the sludge/doom sub-genre and that 2016's album of the year could possibly come in the form of these eight songs and 70-some-odd minutes.