Having had the opportunity to review some doom/sludge releases lately that focus on preserving the genre’s mood without over-exaggerating the delivery, I’ve come to appreciate those bands that can deliver hypnotizing, doomy atmospheres in simplistic, down-to-earth ways. I will not argue that some “epic-ness” works, but sometimes it corners the music into a white room, forcing it to overcompensate via orchestration, synths, or a “more is better” attitude that makes it as one-dimensional as a shitty movie soundtrack. Castle‘s 2014 release, Under Siege, is an example of an album that swallows me up with its more-really-is-less simplicity, and Via Vengeance‘s Harsh Conditions further instills those emotions in me. Musically, Graves at Sea is another band that keeps their doom simple, but, where album length is concerned, they’re is all about the atmospheres, epic builds, and lengthy songs. Their 2016 debut album, The Curse That Is, may have a seventy-five minute runtime, but it represents that stripped-down, classic doom sound; full of clarity, emotion, intensity, and a message as convincing as that of its influences.
The title track opens the album with some billowing feedback before its Tool-meets-Mastodon doom/progressive/sludge character takes the song for a ride down Depression Drive. This eleven-minute tune sends the listener on a dark journey, building into an all-out, heavy-as-hell conclusion. It’s a simplistic, yet well-crafted song that is long, but due to its catchiness and calculated crescendos, feels shorter than it actually is. The band delivers such passion in “The Curse That Is” that the listener—at least, this listener—becomes absorbed and helpless to its mission; a mission that continues from album opener to album closer. Second track “Dead Eyes” takes Nathan Misterek’s raspy vocal style and evolves it further into catchy and unforgettable territories; with a voice that robs elements from black metal genres, using them to give uniqueness to the Graves at Sea sound.
Though the opener may seem to be a solid representation of the Graves at Sea, “The Ashes Made Her Beautiful” lays into it like a grandma bitch-slapping her eighteen year old grandson for lecturing her on the meaning of life — Note: this reviewer does not discourage such actions. Opening with some beautiful violin work (which can also be found in the closing minutes of “Dead Eyes” and the instrumental “Luna Lupus Venator”), this fifteen-minute track stands-out as the quintessential Graves at Sea tune. It combines powerful emotion with violin segments and unleashes harsher vocal patterns, and a drone that brings to mind Crack the Skye-ear Mastodonian vengeance. This approach appears again in the closer, but “The Ashes Made Her Beautiful” achieves such a beautiful balance that you’d think the entire album was created around it.
However, not all the output from This Curse That Is works as well as “The Ashes Made Her Beautiful.” The five-minute “The Metal Sentence” is a stellar ball-busting ditty (containing one of the most addictive riffs on the album and a well-calculated vocal punch to match the hammering drum assault), however, the similarly crafted seven-minute “Tempest” lacks the power of its five-minute twin. Honestly, “Tempest” feels like one of the longest songs on the album, chugging along like a brainless schoolyard bully. Additionally, and sadly, “The Waco 177” (a song focused on the 2015 biker-police shootout in Waco, Texas) suffers the same downfall as “Tempest.” “Tempest” and “The Waco 177” push so hard and so long (in hopes of becoming like their lengthier counterparts) that they don’t know when to quit.
As for the production, The Curse That Is has all the machination to make it one of the best sounding albums of the year. Unfortunately, its compression keeps it from doing so. The dynamic range may be industry-standard, however, this doesn’t stop The Curse That Is from sounding really good. The heavy guitars and distant vocals may have some rawness, but the mix balances them with the bass and drums wonderfully—even allowing the guest violin and acoustic guitars of “Dead Eyes” and “Luna Lupus Venator” an equal opportunity to shine. The length of The Curse That Is can be taxing—fixable with the exclusion of “Tempest” and the trimming of “The Waco 177” and closer “Minimum Slave”—but, in the end, The Curse That Is keeps it clean, keeps it simple, and unloads the doom like your beloved grandson unloading his emotions on his unfortunate psychiatrist. Not perfect, but this band has a lot of potential.