Doom is inescapable. Fear of the known is the constant background buzz of human existence, in its way as strong as fear of the unknown. The knowledge of one’s doom can be a chain too heavy to bear. It’s the curse of reading your future chiseled in granite, holding a crayon. Auckland, New Zealand’s Shallow Grave make their malevolent hay with that fear. Doom fans revel in the dread of the known, and it follows that they seek familiarity in their music. The best quality of Shallow Grave’s Threshold between Worlds, the follow-up to 2013’s self-titled debut, is the way it takes familiar elements and fits them together in new and engaging ways.
Throughout Threshold between Worlds, Shallow Grave fiendishly graft together doom, stoner, black and drone, creating a cohesive whole. The threshold between the worlds of genre consistency and creative exploration is a thin membrane, easy to accidentally put an arm through. Before Shallow Grave expands on tradition, they demonstrate their mastery of it. Opener “The Horrendous Abyss” enters with a raven quill and the Black Clipboard of Doom™, checking off standards. Haunting background noise? Check. A lone guitar plays an evil riff? Check. A light drumbeat joins the lone guitar? Check. Dramatic break into full stride? Check. The band pays its respects, then opens up the surgical kit and starts stitching. “The Horrendous Abyss” shifts between swathes of sinister atmosphere and tight, chaotic attacks. “Master of Cruelty” begins with uneasy droning and a steady, heavy beat for listeners to cling to as it drags us through a maze of evil harmonies and off-kilter solos delivered by Tim Leth and Michael Rothwell’s guitars. Their vocals add texture by appearing and vanishing in bursts, wailing in the distance like the band conjured a demon to sing but had to keep it chained up in the studio’s closet.
Threshold between Worlds is a counter to the strawman idea that “experimental” means throwing a kazoo solo into your thrash record or only using time signatures with prime numbers larger than five. Shallow Grave alternates between Electric Wizard style riffing (“The Horrendous Abyss”), atmospheric droning (“Threshold between Worlds”), and harder-hitting passages (“Garden of Blood and Bone” and “Master of Cruelty”). “The Horrendous Abyss” lets the doom rumble off into the distance and ends on a gently delirious passage that Ennio Morricone might have written, providing breathing room before “Garden of Blood and Bone” drops the hammer with a High on Fire like rhino gallop. This song’s attack also relents in turn. The middle of “Garden of Blood and Bone” is a twisting maze of uncertainty and confusion, as if the beast of its opening assault got bored and wandered off. You’re left battered and bewildered, trying to relocate your shoulder as you stagger away.
Threshold between Worlds flows smoothly, but it could use one last foray into doomy riffing as it hits its long slide into oblivion. The closing title track’s pure drone is a fitting end, but it’s one of only four tracks. If the closer were more of an actual song, I think the already good through-line would be excellent. James Bakker’s drumming is the key to that through-line. As Threshold between Worlds wanders, he keeps the engine growling. There’s no unconsidered motion; every hit lands hard and full. I especially like the points where he anchors the beat to quarter notes on the open high hat, as in the groovy second riff of “The Horrendous Abyss” and the mid-track stomp in “Master of Cruelty.” One final aggressive outpouring in the title track from Bakker’s drums and the lush guitars could’ve pushed the album all the way to the summit at which it feverishly claws.
Threshold between Worlds is a record driven by the cold grey heart of doom. It whispers and moans as the future crawls toward it, inch by heavy inch. It contrasts thickets of dark excess with pastures of open wandering, portraying dread not as a single monolithic emotional spike, but as a treacherous landscape of peaks and pitfalls. Doom metal’s steady lurch can sometimes lead to complacency. Threshold between Worlds tilts and swoops too much ever to let the pit of your stomach settle. Being doomy to the core doesn’t have to mean sounding just like Saint Vitus. That band forged new ground in its time, and so does Shallow Grave.