Second Grave, Second Grave: Behind the Red Door

One thing Massachusetts is never short on is heavy. The mostly-doomed foursome Second Grave no sooner made their existence public than they had their first EP ready to go, and the self-titled, self-released six-tracker is a vinyl-ready half-hour of surprising cohesion. As one might expect from such a fertile scene, there’s something of a pedigree involved – bassist Dave Gein doubles in Black Pyramid and guitarist/vocalist Krista Van Guilder is formerly of Warhorse and Obsidian Halo, in which fellow guitarist Chris Drzal also played, while drummer Chuck Ferreira is ex-Nodscene – so maybe the cohesive sound on the first outing shouldn’t come as such a surprise. It’s nobody’s first time out, in other words, and that prior experience has obviously bled into Second Grave. The sound blends doom, riff rock and an overarching sense of traditional metal darkness, and while the material isn’t bleak to the extent of some modern doom, neither is Second Grave in the business of upbeat heavy rock. They’re in the process of casting their own blend, rather, and even extended songs like the highlights “Covet” and “Mountains of Madness,” both of which top eight minutes, have a purposeful sense of structure and don’t veer too far into indulgence as to be accessible. The band flirts with horror culture – the title “Mountains of Madness” is a Lovecraft reference – but don’t seem to be committed to that aesthetic anymore than they’re ultimately willing to sign up and fill out their “Underground Doom Band” membership card, which if such a thing would exist one imagines might entitle them to discounts on cheap beer and Electric Wizard reissue LPs. Still, while some bands’ refusal to consent to genre signifies bold forays in defiance thereof, Second Grave remain easily accessible for any doomer who might undertake a listen while also giving a proper sampling of the various elements their sound incorporates now and might continue to bring in going forward. In that way, it’s very much a first release, however solidified the band is in their methods and the reasoning behind them.

They’ve pressed CDs – and of course Second Grave is available digitally as most releases are in this glorious future we all share – but the structure of the EP is clearly set up with vinyl in mind, even more so than the actual production of the songs, which was helmed by the band in conjunction with Gein’s Black Pyramid bandmate, Clay Neely, at Black Coffee Sound. Each theoretical “side” begins with an introduction-type piece, the first of which is “Through the Red Door.” An appropriate opener even more because of the EP’s red-door-inclusive artwork, contributed by Van Guilder, the first two minutes of Second Grave set creepy ambience off vague riffing, crafting what actually turns out to be the biggest sense of space in any of the six tracks as Van Guilder and Drzal’s guitars layer in and echo out before giving way to the rumble that leads into “Covet” and “Mountains of Madness.” Similarly, “Salvation” begins the second half of Second Grave’s Second Grave with a minute of classical acoustic guitar that also sets up a pair of tracks, the shorter “Soul Extinction” (4:32) and the finale “Divide and Conquer” (7:50). The sweet simplicity of “Salvation” is a long way, however, from the metal-minded doom that precedes it, and as “Covet” is shortly underway with engaging riffs, thundering drums and Van Guilder’s bluesy classic rock-style vocal, the vibe is chugging, more than capably melodic, and well-soloed. I keep looking for where its 8:48 runtime goes, and though there are leads and instrumental breaks, none of them accounts for any sense of ranging past the stated structure, and it seems like Second Grave are just effectively patient in their songwriting. There’s some similar crunch in how Neely captures the instruments to his own band – one can hear it in the snare sound and of course Gein’s tonality – but the mood is utterly different even as “Mountains of Madness” begins with a bass introduction to set the bounce of its more stonerly opening progression, giving way to a classic metal verse and a much stronger chorus to follow. At first, the ideas driving “Covet” and “Mountains of Madness” seem to be roughly the same, but following another impressive guitar solo in the second half of the latter, Second Grave embark at 6:39 on what’s unquestionably the most thoroughly doomed section of any of these songs.

Van Guilder layers vicious extreme metal screams and growls as she repeats the title over a slower incarnation of the riff, and it’s relatively quick – that is, the part cycles through and then the song ends, rather than Second Grave riding it out for another three or however many minutes – but it’s such a surprise in listening that it’s easy to be caught off guard by it, especially since when it’s over, “Salvation” starts in quickly with the acoustic guitar. You almost miss it at first then wonder if you really just heard what you just heard. “Salvation,” then, functions just as much as a respite after “Mountains of Madness” as an intro to “Soul Extinction” and “Divide and Conquer,” making the structure of the EP richer and more complex as “Soul Extinction” crashes in with newfound immediacy in its thrust. Its verse is a fittingly doomed start-stop stomp, but the chorus opens with a classic heavy rock tension release, Van Guilder offering the strongest vocal here accounted for, and showing a greater comfort level and emotional sensibility in the verse as well. As the song descends to its bridge, its relative brevity becomes all the more apparent – a quick solo is taken, the intro riff returns, and then the track is finished – not even time for a last cycle through the chorus, and “Divide and Conquer” chugs its more metallic opening, the two guitars working in some harmony before the verse begins. Once again, Second Grave conceal their surprises well, and what seems like a revival of the EP’s earlier methods winds up shifting after a rise-and-fall chorus into a long instrumental build at around three minutes in, Gein filling the song’s open space with a classy, subtle bass solo before the guitar takes hold to answer in kind, coming forward in the mix as though out of a fray much more catastrophic than what’s actually happening in the song. They kick into a heavier, more swirling rendition of the same progression before the most Sabbathian of their leads emerges – eventually harmonized – and carries “Divide and Conquer” to its final slowdown and slowly fading ambient outro, which, like much of what precedes, is more complex than it initially appears.

As each cut serves to show an individual piece of what I wouldn’t dare assume is the whole of Second Grave’s musical personality, the resulting EP easily qualifies as such, though if there were one more track to it, either of the extended variety or not, Second Grave could just as easily be a debut full-length for the flow it creates. In any case, the structural prowess and strength of performance the band displays in these tracks makes them worth checking out, and whatever the four-piece move toward in their sound, they’ve given a notable and varied first showing to build from. There’s work to be done in developing the personality that feels like it’s burgeoning here, but there’s nothing on Second Grave to indicate that project wouldn’t be worth the effort in dividends paid.

Second Grave on Bandcamp

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