Place of Skulls Return to a Peaceful Place

Four years have passed since Place of Skulls released The Black is Never Far, their third album, which was in many ways the culmination of a tumult that brought the band many changes, highs and lows. Guitarist/vocalist Victor Griffin — best known for his work in Pentagram contributing to the Maryland/D.C. doom legacy, though he actually lives in Knoxville, Tennessee these days – has always been at the helm, and that remains true as he brings together the original Place of Skulls trio for their new album, As a Dog Returns. Drummer Tim Tomaselli and bassist/vocalist Lee Abney have both been back in the band for a couple of years, replacing the likes of Pete Campbell (Sixty Watt Shaman) and Dennis Cornelius (ex-Revelation), but As a Dog Returns marks the first studio output the trio has released since Southern Lord put out Nailed in 2001.

And for those who haven’t heard Place of Skulls since then, or for those who perhaps are stuck on 2003’s epic With Vision — on which Griffin united with Scott “Wino” Weinrich (The Obsessed, Saint Vitus, etc.) to release one of the finest traditional doom albums of its decade – you should know a lot has changed. Of course, Griffin is still a master riffer. He has been since the days of Death Row, but sound-wise, Place of Skulls is a much different band than they were nine, seven or even four years ago. In 2010, their sound is still rooted in doom, but as the lead songwriter, Griffin doesn’t shy away from balladry either. The third track on As a Dog Returns, “Though He Slay Me,” is essentially a power ballad about Jesus, and the follow-up, the “Planet Caravan”-esque “Psalm,” isn’t far off that either, at least for the first two and a half minutes. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that after a career touching five decades (Death Row formed in 1979) Griffin’s songwriting should have matured, but the doom on As a Dog Returns isn’t miserable, isn’t downtrodden. It seems to rise up to its challenges. It has hope.

That hope comes from the aforementioned deity. Oh man does Victor Griffin love Jesus. He’s what you’d call “a big fan.” And while a lot on a lot of records, especially these days, that kind of thing is easy to look past, either because you can’t understand the vocals or because it’s buried thematically among a record’s other content, with Place of Skulls, there’s simply no getting around it. Doom has a long Christian tradition, from Black Sabbath’s “After Forever,” to the work of Chicago stalwarts Trouble, but if praising Jesus is the kind of thing that bothers you to hear or makes you uncomfortable listening, it’s definitely going to be an issue on songs like “Breath of Life,” “Though He Slay Me,” nine-minute centerpiece “Dayspring” and elsewhere. I’m not going to fault Griffin for wearing his faith on his sleeve – he’s obviously passionate about his beliefs – but the singularity of lyrical perspective is you need to be aware of going into As a Dog Returns. Otherwise this review (and any other) is moot.

Tomaselli’s inventive footwork drives several of the tracks, and though Place of Skulls is never going to be anything but guitar-dominant, Abney gives a solid showing on bass, complementing a solo from Griffin with runs of his own on the later cut “Desperation,” another semi-ballad. As the closing title track rounds out the album, it’s apparent Place of Skulls is exactly where Griffin wants it to be – perhaps not something that could have been said earlier on when Nailed’s most Christian material was left off the Southern Lord release, only to show up later on the Love Through Blood EP – and after all the shifts and changes the band has undergone in their decade together, knowing that brings some satisfaction and more understanding behind the peaceful sound of As a Dog Returns. Whether or not further hard times remain ahead is unknown, but we can be sure Griffin will face whatever comes with spiritual strength and killer soloing, which is really all we as listeners can ask.

Place of Skulls’ website

Place of Skulls on MySpace

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