In times of turmoil, our old refrains become more important to our sanity than ever. After burying my wallet in the backyard following some semi-drunk Christmas shopping, I turned to the latest Gothenburg-spawned album on the pile. Nothing better than somber keyboard-laden melodeath and the pitch-black 4 o’clock hour to ease the pain, right? No chance. Debutantes Gravebreaker happily flip a couple of birds at their melodic compatriots as they burn rubber out of the melodeath parking lot. Leather-clad and switchblades at the ready, Sacrifice blasts heavy metal loud and proud as it cruises around its bombed out city.
Peppered with well-timed synth, light fuzz, and dancing riffs reminiscent of a less boisterous Stormwitch or Iron Maiden, Sacrifice sticks to the laser-focused construction that you would expect from any classic 80’s act. Instead of repeating this formula ad nauseam, the band takes a page from The Witchtrapper’s Guide to the Galaxy, putting fun first and trashing the rest. Gravebreaker’s total package conjures an image of an alternate reality Visigoth that grew up obsessed with Mad Max and Escape from New York instead of LARPing. Ever wanted to listen to Judas Priest homage mixed with extraneous car chase sequence? “Road War 2000” is both fast and furious. You saw Stranger Things, right? Enjoy an inquisitive synth setting to set the mood on “At the Gates of Hell.” And what would “Gravebreaker” be without some light harpsichord? Point being, the album may not be a world-beater, but it knows how to have a good time. Gravebreaker wisely recognize that success demands restraint. Their injections of spirit and flair rarely step on the toes of the music, instead adding spunk to a sound that’s been around the block once or thirty-thrice.
Witchtrap again springs to mind, as both cut earworm riffs capable of constant repetition. Yet on Trap the Witch, the Colombians’ speed served as an additional modifier. Gravebreaker put meat on Sacrifice’s bones with their bevy of diversions but cannot overcome their most notable deficiency: Nightmare’s vocals are an acquired taste, to say the least. Their echoey nature calls to mind Rock n’ Rolf (Running Wild) but with the catchiness replaced by varying degrees of rawness. Some of this results from a poor mesh with the instrumentation, but some is simply a lack of skill. Any time Nightmare takes center stage, such as the chorus of “Sacrifice,” the song grinds to an ear-bleeding halt. To say the voice work kills the album would be a gross exaggeration, but at tally time it definitely showed up on my con list. Sacrifice prospers thanks to its tight track times, preventing any one riff from devolving into tedium. Of course, with the straightforward nature of the composition, the entire track hits the dirt if the main hook or riff fails to land. Taking it one step further, some songs leave you hanging and transition out before being fully explored (See: “Overdrive”). None of these issues ruin the record alone, but in sum, they hamstring an album with an otherwise very high ceiling for success.
Don’t get me wrong, Gravebreaker definitely have one more fan than they did the last week. I’m a sucker for Gama Bomb-infusions of cheesy pop culture, so sign me up for the tales of the ninja on “Pray for Death” or “Road War 2000’s” ridiculous sound effects. The 80’s B-movie spots obviously wouldn’t work without solid foundation. To Gravebreaker’s credit, the LP remains consistent and engaging musically. Guitarist Fury knows how to write licks that would fill up a quality spin even without the bells and whistles, such as on “Spellbound.” When coupled with surprisingly well-involved keyboards, his undeniably strong work elevates “Kill and Kill Again” past Nightmare’s shortcomings.
With 2016 coming to a close, Sacrifice sneaks under the wire as a nice stocking-stuffer. I doubt anyone will go nuclear and shake up their year-end list, but many of you will have fun with this one. My enjoyment of Sacrifice far outweighs my score, but the record is too flawed to crack the next tier. With a few adjustments, though, I expect Gravebreaker to come back supercharged and ready for a big step forward.