We here at AMG always have the best of intentions when it comes to reviewing unknown, up-and-coming bands. Sadly, as is usually the case with good intentions, they don’t add up to shit and then we feel shame and remorse (and sometimes, guilt [I’m shocked that you didn’t make a Sad Metal Guy joke, not very on the ball of you! – AMG]). In hopes of moving the karma train on to the next station, I’m focusing my steely eye on the self titled debut by Chicago progressive doomsters Earthen Grave. As with many promos that surreptitiously creep into my review bin, I don’t know anything about them except what their self-serving promotional material tell me. It appears this collective is made up of members of The Living Fields, Trouble and Place of Skulls, among others. With such a respectable doom pedigree, you’d be forgiven for expecting a traditional doom album. However, that’s not what Earthen Grave is pedalling to the masses. Instead. this is an odd, doom/biker rock/progressive metal fusion and it’s quite a difficult album to get a handle on. It’s definitely got some things going for it though, and enough potential to ensure my attention, now and in the future.
Things start out exactly as one expects with a doom album. Wind and church bells give way to satisfyingly heavy doom riffs and emotional singing, which sounds a whole lot like Chris Cornell in his Audioslave mode. Adding an extra layer of texture is some well placed violin. Merge it all together and you have a great, addicting, 70s retro doom song with traces of Hammers of Misfortune weirdness (especially at 5:25 when the guitar and violin duel it out during a spaced out jam session). It’s the kind of song that gets the listener primed for more of the same. Earthen Grave doesn’t follow expectations however, and “Life Carries On” is more like Fireball Ministry or Orange Goblin style biker/stoner rock. It’s greasy, rough and tumble bar music with big riffs and angry vocals (very similar to Fireball‘s James Rota), but the violin still floats along, counter-pointing the guitar and trading off solos. It shouldn’t work, but it does (the psychotic string solo at 4:26 is awesome). As you’re reeling from the stylistic change-up, they cram a cover of the Witchfinder General classic “Burning a Sinner” into the queue to further befuddle and confound.
As things glide along, you get the haunting “Blood Drunk,” which shares the same melancholy mood as “Beyond the Realms of Death” by Judas Priest if it was performed by Wood of Ypres. Here, the vocals transform into a reasonable facsimile of latter-day James Hetfield. Then comes another snobberknockering doom ditty called “Titled World” which could have sat on either Black Sabbath‘s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath or the original Pentagram album. It’s got a huge doom riff and a great groove that keeps your head nodding and your fist pumping. It’s everything you want in a doom song. My only criticisms is how close they get to ripping off Sabbath‘s immortal “National Acrobat” at 3:58 (and I mean VERY close). Later, they throw a cover of Pentagram‘s “Relentless” into the fray as if to prove their love old doom.
Throughout the album I was repeatedly struck by the malleable nature of Mark Weiner’s vocals. He’s not the best singer out there, but he manages to bend and change his delivery as the material requires. He has a great hoarse shout, a range of Ozzy and Hetfield impersonations and a fairly convincing standard-issue wail [They really are just handing them out to anybody nowadays… – AMG]. The man is a vocal chameleon, plain and simple. I was also quite taken with the performance by Rachel Barton Pine on what they describe as an “extended range electric flying V violin” (that’s fooking metal, eh?). She makes the instrument an integral part of the sound, yet manages to keep it from becoming cheesy or tiresome. The various riffs crafted by Jason Muxlow are also quite effective and run the gamut from classic doom, angry hard rock and spacey progressive weirdness.
As impressive as this platter is, it’s not without it’s flaws. The random slotting in of classic doom covers seems odd and a bit cheesy. If you tack covers on the end of an album, it makes sense, but dotting the landscape of your original compositions with the better known works of others seems more appropriate for a college/garage band as a means to pad their primitive demos (the near-theft of Sabbath riffery is a similar, but more serious issue). Additionally, songs like “Beneath the Shovel Load” and “Dismal Times” drag on too long and are sorely in need of tightening. This ends up eroding the impact of otherwise respectable numbers. This goes triple for the WAY overlong “Death on the High Seas,” which is roughly three minutes longer than the musical ideas within warrant. While I’m being a hectoring dick, I don’t love the guitar tone, which sometimes lacks sufficient muscle.
Earthen Grave is still raw and rough around the edge, but there are diamonds buried here for sure. They have a lot of talent and a fearless style of writing which transcends any one genre. With some seasoning, these cats could truly become a metallic Da Vinci of sorts. I strongly suggest giving this oddball album a serious listen and judge for yourself. I know I’ll be watching this group very carefully from here on out. Refreshing strangeness!