Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Album Review: Early Graves - 'Red Horse'

It's interesting to me how much of a band's identity lies within their vocalist. I suppose alot of it has to do with it being the most versatile of instruments amongst the typical heavy metal arsenal. It paints with the largest brush strokes and gives the sound of a band's music most of it's character. And while most grindcore and powerviolence vocalists generally follow the same dynamic when it comes to delivery and range, I suppose one could argue that no two vocalists, even within the narrow confines of the aforementioned styles of extreme music, are the same. Some groups that were forced to change vocalists for whatever reason at some point in their career are even categorized into eras based on it.
There are only a handful of bands that walk within their lines that I'd never want to see wander into a different direction or "progress", but most of those exist outside the world of extreme music. Within the genre I always welcome a change or experimentation, and I always find it interesting when a band is forced to change their sound and adapt due to whatever circumstances may have transgressed. Those circumstances could not be more tragic than what transgressed with Early Graves, and the adaption could not be more poetic or fitting.
I got into Early Graves through their second album 'Goner'. It was smack dab in the middle of winter, one of those cold, biting days where the sun is out and twice as blinding because of all the dried up snow, everything is covered in that layer of salt and the air is dry. I was going through a bit of a lull, there was nothing new out there that interested me but I was longing to hear something. I'd heard of Early Graves and ended up buying their album on a couple of 30 second samples I'd heard on Amazon, I guess I was feeling desperate and thought what the hell - sounded alright, and Kurt Ballou was involved so why not? I tossed the thing into my Ipod and sulked off to the gym. I guess the best analogy to equate that experience to would be picking a fight with the wrong person, because by the second track that album had spun my head around. The production was muddy and chaotic, a swirl of raw noise adhesed together with layer upon layer of feedback, there were times where the whole thing sounded like it was just going to completely fall apart and not be able to salvage itself, but it always held together strong and that aspect simply added to the charisma of the record. That first listen was a cathartic experience to say the least. I soon backtracked to the first album 'We: The Guillotine' - which is sonically almost the same album, just loaded with fat. Goner got in, scrambled your brains and got out, probably couldn't even walk through the cutting room floor on that one. It was a strategic move to trim the fat for that second album because it's short running time helped make the record a clenched fist ready to be thrown.
On the subsequent tour following the release, lead vocalist Makh Daniels was killed in a tragic van accident. When wounds started to mend and the band made the decision to soldier forth, long time friend of the group John Strachan stepped up to fill in as vocalist. John also sang for tourmates Funeral Pyre, his move into the vocalist position for Early Graves would be both admittedly comfortable for the rest of the band, and fitting as the album - with it's occasional quiet instrumental interlude and possible lyrical interpretation - can at times come off as an homage to Daniels, and nobody wants a stranger leading that charge. Had Makh's life never been tragically cut short, say he left the band on his own merit and EG still wrote the exact same record I may not be feeling that homage, I'd just call it a step in a different direction, so that vibe, to me, is based on the events I've known to take place - the end result is up to any listeners own subjective interpretation as there are no blatantly obvious nods here, tastefully done I must say.
Now let's get to the album, 'Red Horse'. It is not better than 'Goner'. It is much more controlled, reigned in....Dare I say it? Mature. The band has admitted to wanting to evolve, to move forward. I welcome the change, but it was not forced or molded around the new vocalist, as the clear acoustic passages and pleasant inspirational outros that are scattered about this record don't have any singing over them. In fact, the vocals, while very different than the dry throated monotone barking of Daniels - still function in the same dynamic. The range varies little and the message of desperation and aggravation is still there, but the softer parts do offer a pleasant contrast to the muddy chaos of sound the band has stuck with since their debut - this contrast offers uplift in a world that rains anvils, and it works. After listening to Early Graves' first two albums I kind of thought them to be one of those bands that does what they do and that's it, 8 albums in and the formula hasn't changed - so it was nice to be proved wrong in such a pleasant way. The first track 'Skinwalker' opens with a quiet intro that builds up into a bouncy little cliffhanger riff, whose feedback pulls us into trademark Early Graves punk-grind-power riffage. My only complaint here being that the sound actually seems to get quieter when the song gets faster, something that happens I understand, as things aren't being hit as hard when they're moving quicker, but it's something I would have liked to see a producer catch and prevent, unless of course they were just going for that real-live feel - which is always a viable excuse I suppose. The next two tracks, 'Misery' and 'Days Grow Cold' honestly kind of come and go, the latter stepping out a little more because of the acoustic outro - which leads us to the title track 'Red Horse', a bouncy yet driving little number that achieves exactly what it's supposed to as the whole thing sounds like galloping through a field littered with people off-ing each other in record numbers Braveheart style. 'Pure Hell' is Early Graves doing what they do best, especially when the thing ups gears about a minute and a half in from fast to Plaid and the floor just gives way from beneath the music as it turns into a cacaphony of grindcore fighting black metal in Tokyo. The final track 'Quietus', is arguably the best track on the album, clocking in at just over 6 minutes the song careens in with that same tempo the rest of the album likes to coast in and then downshifts for a fist throwing cadence during the chorus. 'Quietus' sounds like everything else on the album until those strings slow their vibration halfway through and an inspiring yet desperate instrumental outro carries the album to it's close.
Now, this could be good or bad depending on how you look at it, but with the band's raw, sonic density and writing style - they've always at times kind of sounded like Converge, no shit considering Kurt Ballou has been involved with the band, the influence is obvious. However, with the addition of the new singer, it sounds at times on this record almost exactly like Converge, especially on 'Death Obsessed' and a couple of other places scattered about. There are worse groups to emulate noooooo doubt, as I love Converge and all, but I don't need another Converge, I don't want another Coverge, and I don't believe they were setting out to do that, but that's just the way it turned out, at least to my cochlear implants.
Early Graves went through some serious shit and with that in mind this album is a winner. It's enjoyable - but for me it lingers a bit in mediocre waters. I had zero expectations for it, didn't expect it to suck and I didn't expect it to blow me away either, as I kind of went into it with the same mentality as when I first bought 'Goner' on a complete whim. "oh look, Early Graves came out with a new album a couple of months ago" kind of thing. It's good, it would be awesome as maybe a four song EP or something (Skinwalker, Apocalyptic Nights, Pure Hell, Quietus), but it's still only 8 tracks and a damn short album for the most part. It lacked something for me, but that doesn't mean I'd dissuade another from wanting to hear it, as I can see where for some it may move mountains. I'm going to work on making these reviews a whole lot shorter.