Following the release of their self-titled debut on Tee-Pee in 2008, the groundswell around Swedish retro rockers Graveyard has been remarkable. The Gothenburg four-piece, born from the same roots as Witchcraft in the band Norrsken, tapped a direct line to the soft spot in everyone’s heart for Led Zeppelin and managed to balance a weighted tonality with upbeat and driving rhythms in a way that a lot of stylized proto-metal or heavy rock simply couldn’t do. The dueling guitars and vocals of Joakim Nilsson and Jonathan Ramm make both their live and recorded output exciting and memorable, and that carries over to their much-anticipated 2011 second album, Hisingen Blues, delivered via Nuclear Blast. Soundwise, Hisingen Blues doesn’t range far from the Graveyard album, but it’s cleaner and you can tell in listening that Graveyard has spent significant time on the road. Their playing is tighter and Nilsson and Ramm have an increased sense of interplay between their voices that comes across especially well on a track like “Uncomfortably Numb.”
There are a slew of ‘70s and classic rock references throughout, from the title of the song just mentioned to the Lynyrd Skynyrd solo contained therein – finally, an answer to the proverbial yelling of “Freebird!” at every show ever – and the spooky organ that populates “Ungrateful are the Dead.” The album starts with the shuffle of “Ain’t Fit to Live Here,” drummer Axel Sjöberg making his presence immediately felt with excellent snare and kick work, a kind of looseness in his playing that’s never actually out of control. It’s perfect for Graveyard’s sound, in any case, and able to switch between the bluesy revival (Ramm and Nilsson testifying with the spirit well upon them, to be sure) of “Ain’t Fit to Live Here” and more swaying grayness of “No Good, Mr. Holden,” which follows. The choruses of both the opening duo cuts make them Hisingen Blues highlights, but there’s something about the material Graveyard that presents that doesn’t beat you over the head. There’s a subtlety to the songwriting that virtually begs for repeat listens, and I’ve found that the more I engage with the record, the more likely I am to have one of the songs in my head.
I wonder if perhaps that’s not my own process of getting past the style aspect to what Graveyard does and into the actual substance of their music, which is considerable. As Hisingen Blues moves into its chorus and I find I too want to raise my hand to be saved (by the devil, naturally), it’s readily apparent that although they’ve obviously got an eye on their visual presentation in terms of fashion and general aesthetic, it’s the songs that are paramount. “Hisingen Blues” shares a partial common melody – I won’t say influence, because it’s a vague connection and could just be something I’m hearing, but nonetheless was strong enough to make me listen for a comparison – to Danzig’s “Going Down to Die,” which is a nice touch either way and another example of the strong vocal work of Ramm and Nilsson. “Uncomfortably Numb,” an appropriate side A closer, is the longest track on Hisingen Blues, and with the aforementioned solo section, makes a great place for those listening on vinyl – which unquestionably the album was made for – to stop and process what they’ve just heard before moving onto the next half.
“Buying Truth (Tack and Förlåt)” is somewhat less frenetic as the introduction to side B than “Ain’t Fit to Live Here” was to the album as a whole, and a little thicker in terms of the riffs and the presence of bassist Rikard Edlund, but backing “oohs” and “ohs” make it catchy nonetheless. The parenthesized Swedish portion of the title translates to “Thanks and Forgive,” and the lyrics, which ask “When was the last time that you felt alive?” would seem to bear at least some of that out, but it’s more the overall vibe of the song that carries over than any specific ideology. Perhaps of all the material on Hisingen Blues, “Buying Truth (Tack and Förlåt)” feels the most guitar-led, but change comes quick in the form of the instrumental “Longing,” where whistling affects an American Western atmosphere and acoustic and electric guitars work a gradual build to a miniature apex before stepping back and letting the organ once again take the fore in the mix. The structural disparity is welcome, and as the organ carries over to “Ungrateful are the Dead,” the natural flow of side B of Hisingen Blues is palpable.
With the thoughtful mood set by “Longing,” “Ungrateful are the Dead” turns deftly on a circular riff into a chorus reminiscent of “No Good, Mr. Holden,” but by no means repetitive of it. The boogie returns for “RSS,” which blends the energy of the opener with less frantic push from Sjöberg (though he does give his cymbals the business, and rightly so), a clearer sense of structure and more excellent “ooh” and “aah” between Ramm and Nilsson. It’s on this kind of song that Graveyard is most themselves. Granted, what they’re doing depends on a certain kind of creative familiarity – it is classic rock, formally – but the identity within that is completely their own, and the confidence with which they execute the songs on Hisingen Blues justifies every bit of buzz they’ve garnered since the self-titled was released. “RSS” leaves nothing to the imagination, and as the slower, quieter, more contemplative closer “The Siren” tells vintage tales of demons and temptation, echoing “Uncomfortably Numb” musically while expanding on some of the same ideas, it’s apparent how much Graveyard’s ability extends to the structure of the album itself and how much they put into making Hisingen Blues the best it could be.
Undeniably, that work paid off. I have no doubt that when the book is closed on 2011, Graveyard’s Hisingen Blues will be among the strongest of the year’s releases, and should the band get behind it with the same kind of gusto as they did the self-titled, shows at SXSW, extensive American touring, etc., their name can only ring out further. “The Siren”’s payoff is as appropriate a finale to Hisingen Blues as was the in medias res kickoff of “Ain’t Fit to Live Here,” and in coming up with a descriptor for the album as a whole, anything less than “masterful” doesn’t seem to cut it. The songs might take a little while to settle into some ears, but once they do, succumbing to them is basically inevitable. They’re the kind of tracks you might wake up with stuck in your head, and more than how tight their flannels are, or where they part their hair, or how ‘70s their moustaches are, that’s what makes the difference on Hisingen Blues. If this is going to be their breakthrough, it’s well deserved.Gothenburg, Graveyard, Nuclear Blast, Sweden