At first glance, Portland’s Graves at Sea may deceive you. With their nautically inspired name and a sound that evokes the image of some haunted ship rising from the doomed sludge deep beneath the sea, many would expect something along the lines of Mastodon’s Moby Dick-inspired Leviathan — in fact, many jaded Mastodon fans like myself who dearly miss those days would certainly find their interests piqued. And yet, Graves at Sea’s first studio album, The Curse That Is, is much more than anyone could ask for in terms of length, nuance, and message. None of which has to do with seafaring.
The album’s opening title track does well to indicate the album’s size and weight with its 11-minute runtime and winding overture riffs. It introduces frontman and co-founder Nathan Misterek’s dynamic vocal work, which alternates between viscous and raspy throughout. It also shows off Nick Phit and “Sketchy” Jeff McGarrity’s faithful and progressive sludgy guitar work, as well as drummer Bryan Sours’ captivating fills. Sure, upon first listen it sounds like some undead sea shanty, but only if it was being sung upon a ship haunted by a crew who are regretting ever having lived at all.
Using an incomplete phrase as an album title essentially invites listeners to search within the music for the word that fills in the blank. With The Curse That Is, that final word appears to be Existence. “Raise your glasses, we’re doomed from the start,” chants Misterek on the opening track, ushering in carols of nihilism and defeatism. Living is most awfully done in menial jobs (“Minimum Slave”) and medically induced comas (“This Mental Sentence”). Most surprising was “Waco 177”, which is named for the 177 bikers who were arrested in May of last year after a shootout in Waco, TX that killed nine people. Tossing aside the “Born To Be Wild” spirit of open road freedom associated with motorcycles, the song relishes in the existential thrill of living outside the law as well as the injustices involved with the shootout. Despite their seafaring name, Graves At Sea seem to have their feet firmly planted on Earth, almost deeply and perplexingly so in a song called “Tempest” that depicts scenes of catacombs and mass burials. Burly riffs roll in and out like the tide as Misterek shouts lines like, “Inside this prison/ Condemned to this fate.”
Graves at Sea take their sweet time on their first full-length, giving songs room to breathe, explore, and insist upon themselves, often containing bookending motifs and repeated verses. The album is at its best and most cathartic in its centerpiece: the massive and perfectly drawn out “The Ashes Made Her Beautiful”, a track that revels in its acceptance of loss. Violinist Alex Carlson, who often features opposite Phit’s acoustic guitar on album’s outros, is brought in to seal the songs’ mournful tones. Meanwhile, the band builds itself up slowly, melodically and methodically, giving Sours control over the imminent rise to battle and into maturity. Misterek’s vocals reach their deepest and most guttural, giving the track its weight. Upon reaching the top of the crescendo, sounds of forging steel can be heard — whatever’s looming proving its power and inevitability.
In its endlessness and insurmountability, The Curse That Is finds its primary strength. Its songs present claustrophobic and hopeless situations that go on forever, and where Misterek calls bullshit on this confinement, his voice strains on lines like “Alive/ While in a grave” in “Minimum Slave”, which get the frustrated reality across in its audible helplessness. The Curse That Is succeeds is in its defeat and brilliant ways of relentlessly reminding you that you’re in no better situation simply for the fact that you exist.
Essential Tracks: “The Curse That Is”, “The Ashes Made Her Beautiful”, and “Minimum Slave”