Not to put too strong a spin on it, but Graveyard’s first two albums were a revelation. The Gothenburg-based retro rocking foursome unveiled their full-length debut via Tee Pee in 2008 and never looked back, garnering a response that had guardians of pop culture high and low singing their praises and heralding their analog-worship fuzz, soulful authenticity and ceaseless motion with hyperbolic aplomb. Years on the road and bureaucratic delays left some space between the two, but when Hisingen Blues (review here) surfaced through Nuclear Blast in 2011, the reaction was no less fervent, only bolstered by Graveyard’s first US headlining tour and numerous fest appearances, videos, etc. Their influence took hold quickly and gave upbeat purpose to the vintage-minded European heavy rock underground – not out of context with what their countrymen in Witchcraft had done on their first three albums, but directed elsewhere sonically – and theirs became a name to be dropped not only among 2011’s best records, but in terms of bands having a genuine impact on the scope of their genre. Lights Out, the third Graveyard full-length and second for Nuclear Blast, has a lot to live up to in this regard. The four-piece band of vocalist/guitarist Joakim Nilsson, bassist Rikard Edlund, drummer Axel Sjöberg and guitarist Jonathan Ramm showed an utter mastery of their form their last time out, and about 18 months later, they return with no real choice but either to expand their aesthetic, branch out into new territory, or face redundancy at the hands of something they’ve already done as well as they (or, arguably, anyone else) could. One might think that would lead the songs on Lights Out to be under-baked, or hurriedly composed or recorded – on first listen to the nine-track/35:33-collection, that was what I expected, anyhow – but they’re not. Instead, they’re the most patient, most expansive Graveyard songs to date, with bolstered arrangements and a sense of drama to them that the band has never before touched on, Nilsson emerging as a charismatic focal point even as cuts like “Slow Motion Countdown,” “Hard Times Lovin’” and the thoughtful closer “20-20 (Tunnel Vision)” introduce a burgeoning creative breadth.
Of course, nothing without sacrifice. The tradeoff is that but for a few of these cuts – the early “Seven Seven” is suitably reckless and the single “Goliath” was well chosen in this regard – much of the frenetic boogie that seemed to be writ large across Hisingen Blues is given over to more complex movements, and true to its name, Lights Out is darker, moodier, lonelier, but also sexier, effectively conveying a wider emotional scope. The raucous testimony of the last album’s title-track or closer “The Siren” has largely dissipated, but one finds precedent for quieter, more brooding stretches in songs like “No Good, Mr. Holden” and “Uncomfortably Numb,” the latter of which serves as a sort of ethical forbear particularly to the strained-relationship narrative of “Hard Times Lovin’,” though at 4:27, exactly what’s gone is that takeoff into riotous classic rock guitar work. But the dynamic in Graveyard’s songwriting hasn’t disappeared, only changed. Underscored by organ, “Hard Times Lovin’” is an effective ballad with a build unto itself, rising and falling much as the earlier “Slow Motion Countdown,” and conveying a focused approach amid the overarching flow of the album. That said, as much as the overall balance of Lights Out may have shifted from the band’s 2011 outing, there remains in the material that sense of teetering dangerousness, that feeling of shaking the songs so hard at times they might just come apart from the inside out, and that continues to make Graveyard an exciting and engaging listen. Impeccably structured throughout and produced with analog warmth and clarity, opener “An Industry of Murder” makes its threat before it even begins, a fading in siren serving as the underscore for a creeping guitar line that gets underway once the push of Sjöberg’s bass drum sets the course of its initial build. At the minute mark, the verse line is introduced, and immediately, Nilsson’s vocals are a central element – intelligent and timely/timeless social commentary is nothing new for the band, though I don’t know if it’s ever been quite as vitriolic as it is here in “An Industry of Murder,” the unbearably catchy “The Suits, the Law and the Uniforms” or “Goliath” – and as they mount the sweep into the chorus, the vibe is more foreboding in no small part because of that intro, but still rife with motion and deft rhythmic shifts. Culmination comes after a second chorus in the form of a from-the-ground-up break and build that hits its payoff in irresistible and surprisingly metallic thrust as Nilsson pushes his voice to Eric Wagner-esque range for the lines “In history lies the future/Your empire will fall.” It’s as powerful as anything Graveyard have yet constructed in their career.
They keep that momentum going through the solo and a final chorus, ending cold at the peak of a rough-hewn psychedelic churn, and drop quickly into the more prevalent low end of “Slow Motion Countdown,” slower, more wistful, with open-ended guitar lines and a simple-enough beginning soon complemented by mellotron in a hint of the grandiose chorus to come. At 1:59, “Slow Motion Countdown” bursts to life – not in the sense of taking off to vintage ‘70s shuffle, but in a more assured, soul-based push. Again, it’s not that Graveyard have lost their dynamic sensibility, they’ve just begun a process of expanding it. Nilsson is more of a frontman than he’s ever been in the chorus to the 5:35 track, which is the longest on the album, and ultimately it’s his insistent cadence that keeps the song grounded in groove, though that’s not to underplay the excellent snare march from Sjöberg, whose performance throughout Lights Out is crucial. The verse/chorus dynamic is no less exciting the second time around for knowing what’s in store, the string sounds feeding into the longing finally made desperate, and a following bridge and instrumental outro revival only enhance the emotionality on display, which soon gives way to the brashness of “Seven Seven,” the shortest and most manic piece of Lights Out’s whole that once again shows not only the range of craft present in Graveyard’s work at this point, but also their ability to set their songs next to each other in a way that highlights same while also creating a complete, classic full-length flow in the process. Something much easier said than done, but stopping to appreciate it will likely result in “Seven Seven” leaving you behind, as the track moves quickly to its hook, past it, through it again and then gone, the immediacy of its verse standing in sharp contrast to the relatively languid beginnings of “An Industry of Murder” and “Slow Motion Countdown,” and Nilsson’s gruffer vocal a far cry from the fragility shown roughly 45 seconds earlier. At 0:23, he even throws in a quick “ooh” grunt that has wound up being one my favorite blips on the record. The structure of the song is roughly the same as “Slow Motion Countdown,” but the context more or less as opposite as it can be and still be in Graveyard’s sphere. I’m glad I don’t have to choose between one side of the band or the other.
The rollercoaster continues with the mid-paced shuffle of “The Suits, the Law and the Uniforms.” Edlund offers the best bass tones of the album as Nilsson works in his higher register to stand defiant against whatever force it might be urging him to abandon rock and roll and don a suit like the rest of the squares – in less capable hands, one might think of lyrics like, “No I won’t kneel for you/No I ain’t gonna bow/Ain’t gonna bow” as tired, but here the groove is paramount and the context classic enough as to make it fit. As the song hits its last-minute apex, there’s a saxophone or some effect, something that adds a high-pitched mania to the guitar, and that plays up a raucousness that seems to play against the chorus of the song, which is among Lights Out’s most memorable despite stiff competition. As ever, though, they make it work, the straightforward “Endless Night” keeping the momentum forward with a lift in tempo but a feel somewhat less unhinged than “Seven Seven,” a quiet break after the second chorus – led by Edlund’s bass and punctuated by Sjöberg’s toms for a moment before the boogie is renewed for a final reprise – doing much to remind of Graveyard’s pervasive, natural-sounding diversity. It might be filler, though the record’s pretty tight at 35 minutes, so I doubt it, but even if it is, “Endless Night” is well-placed after “The Suits, the Law and the Uniforms” and before “Hard Times Lovin’,” continuing the back and forth Lights Out seems to be working from to various degrees in its interplay of tracks. In its chorus, “Hard Times Lovin’” doesn’t quite hit the same levels of musical grandiosity as “Slow Motion Countdown,” instead keeping a more insular feel suited to the personal lyrical thematic. The verse opens quietly with Nilsson’s “Darling, I’m leaving now,” beginning a “baby I’m going out on tour and there’s hot ladies there but don’t worry because you’re the only hot lady I’ll ever need”-type lyric that, like “The Suits, the Law and the Uniforms,” is ground so familiar in rock as to be largely unheard of these days, but they’ve established a base for themselves in this territory before, and put into context with the fact that they became a higher-profile touring band following the release of Hisingen Blues, narrative or not, it makes sense. In any case, Nilsson’s soulful, fluid vocal delivery proves he’s able to carry the early part of the song on his own, and they’re right to revel as they do in the chorus of “I know there’s days I let you down/But we’re gonna get through these hard times/See what tomorrow brings/Please love me and stay with me forever” in classic pop fashion while the musical swirl beneath mirrors the emotional crux, cutting when there’s nothing left to say to organ and a reminder of the subdued intro.
With the varied course of the album long since set, anything that would follow “Hard Times Lovin’” would have to be faster, more upbeat, and so “Goliath” is precisely that, delving further into the band’s political side and offering as concise a summation of the dilemma of corporate oligarchy as I’ve ever heard in the chorus of, “They are trying to sell/Slavery as a dream to chase.” The shuffle in “Goliath” – once again bolstered by Edlund’s bass tone as it’s carried by Ramm and Nilsson’s guitars – is the most reminiscent of Hisingen Blues that Lights Out gets, and so it’s a good track to tie the two albums together. Its personality is its own, however, and the beehive-buzz fuzz in the beginning barely prepares one for Ramm‘s vicious lead that fades up to complement the chorus. The whole song is a hook. It has no frills to speak of, but is complex rhythmically nonetheless, Sjöberg’s fills blinding one into the next in a kind of proto-punk rush of taps and thuds as the midpoint passes. Even as they dial back from the bridge into the verse, the intensity level is held firm, and “Goliath” ultimately shows that however far Graveyard have developed in their arrangements, their ability to write a raging classic heavy rocker is second to none. Nothing in the closing duo of “Fool in the End” and “20-20 (Tunnel Vision)” matches the energy of “Goliath,” but they provide a powerful ending nonetheless, the former winding a cautionary tale of being careful what you wish for in the music industry at a warm middle tempo while the latter echoes some of the moodier atmosphere of “The Siren” (the aforementioned Hisingen Blues closer) but removes the testimonial/revivalist aspect in favor of a worldlier approach to its build and payoff. As a result, the Lights Out finisher is somewhat more reserved, keeping its full force at bay until the last minute payoff, though an appropriately memorable impression is left by the line, “I want a drink again” and “Fool in the End” and “20-20 (Tunnel Vision)” are about as direct as the album gets in mirroring the flow of its predecessor, the songs working toward similar ends, if through markedly different (not necessarily opposing) means. Remaining consistent with the rest of Lights Out, “20-20 (Tunnel Vision)” caps with a more thoughtful, patient take on Graveyard’s established methodology.
And finally, that proves to be Lights Out’s defining accomplishment, the flow – which, like some kind of musical cheat code, goes: up, way down, way up, middle, up, down, up, middle, down, while fluctuating between at various points – acting as affirmation that Graveyard are more than vintage riffs and ballsy swagger. One wonders if, having arrived at this place in their career with such a short break between their second and third albums, the band will embark on a new period of productivity, establishing a rate of release more akin to their early ‘70s influences than the stretch that split the self-titled and Hisingen Blues. If the tradeoff is that Lights Out doesn’t share the same ravenous hunger as its predecessors, the confidence carrying the “Oh baby you and me are the same/Slightly used and damaged/That’s okay” verse of “Hard Times Lovin’” is a fair exchange that serves also to lay a foundation for possible areas of growth next time out. Much as their contemporary labelmate (and in the case of Nilsson and Edlund, former bandmate in Norrsken) Magnus Pelander has taken his band Witchcraft in a bold and new direction on their latest outing, so too have Graveard served notice that change – albeit nowhere near as drastic a change – is taking place and that what we’ve heard and seen of the band thus far is by no means the full story. For both what it shares in common with and its departures from past achievements, much like its single “Goliath,” the whole of Lights Out is a hook as well, intriguing the listener to find out where Graveyard could possibly be headed next. Listening back to the moodier stretches that so much define the overall vibe of this album, I haven’t the foggiest, and I like that a lot.
Tags: Gothenburg, Graveyard, Graveyard Lights Out, Lights Out, Nuclear Blast, Sweden