Coming subsequent to guitarist/vocalist Victor Griffin putting to rest his band Place of Skulls to rest and once more severing his ties to American doom legends Pentagram, it’s not at all a challenge to read his forming of the new outfit In~Graved (also written sometimes as the less-stylized In-Graved or Victor Griffin’s In~Graved; a matter for time to clear up) as the beginning of a new era. The one-time Death Row leader plays to many of his long-since established strengths throughout In-Graved‘s self-titled debut, released by Svart, but even so, his methods have changed. While some of what makes up In-Graved will be familiar to those who’ve followed Griffin over however long an expanse of years — riffs, solos, passion and faith coming to mind immediately as consistent elements — the personality of In-Graved is nonetheless distinct, and that’s thanks in no small part to Griffin and drummer “Minnesota” Pete Campbell (also Place of Skulls and Sixty Watt Shaman) being joined by a host of bass players throughout the course of these eight tracks.
And I do mean a host. Along with Guy Pinhas (The Obsessed, Goatsnake, Acid King), who will join Griffin and Campbell as part of In-Graved‘s touring lineup in support of the album, Trouble‘s Ron Holzner (also Earthen Grave and The Skull), Place of Skulls‘ Greg Turley, West Virginian doomer Dan Lively (also Sweet Cicada), Marty Swaney (Death Row, Pentagram) and even Griffin‘s own wife, Anne, all contribute bass throughout, and Trouble‘s Jeff Oly Olson (also Retro Grave) and Orodruin‘s Mike Puleo play keyboards, so In-Graved‘s debut is nothing if not densely packed in terms of its personnel. That it manages to get through its 40-minute span and come out on the other end with a cohesive sonic personality is perhaps the album’s greatest achievement, but like Place of Skulls before it, that musical personality ultimately becomes deeply tied to Griffin‘s as he leads the new band with his characteristic guitar tone and soulful vocal approach.
The album begins with “Digital Critic,” its lyrics a familiar indictment of those hiding behind internet anonymity while levying harsh criticism at an artist’s work. I don’t recall either Place of Skulls‘ last album, 2010′s As a Dog Returns (review here), or Pentagram‘s triumphant Griffin-inclusive comeback, Last Rites (review here), being met with vitriol — particularly in the case of the latter, the praise bordered on hyperbole — but perhaps some in the online sphere dug into As a Dog Returns on account of Griffin‘s up-front, here-it-is-so-deal-with-it Christian thematics, very much present on that album in songs like “He’s God,” “The Maker” and “Breath of Life.” Well, as if in a follow-up response to the initial charges brought forth in “Digital Critic” — the chugging riff and keyboard work of which make a strong opener — Griffin moves directly into “What If…,” which marks In-Graved‘s most directly Christian lyric, the central question being what if you died and there turned out to be an afterlife, if there wasn’t just an end, nothing, done, but a heaven and eternity to come, the second verse seeming to recoil at the meaninglessness of a life that just ends when it’s over.
As a nonbeliever, I have my answers to these questions, but I see value neither in spewing them here or answering back Griffin‘s faith — which he has blatantly, bravely and passionately expressed in a manner 100 percent free of irony — with what would likely only come across as condescension or sarcasm. Instead, it seems more useful to me to consider a track like “What If…” as a work of Christian art presenting a Christian perspective, and remind myself that just because someone doesn’t share that perspective doesn’t mean they can’t appreciate the art. I don’t believe in the teachings of Buddha either, but that doesn’t mean I can’t think a statue is beautiful, and so as Griffin rips into one of In-Graved‘s many impressive solos, the songwriting, the central riff around which the song is based, and the melodic depth added by the keys make “What If…” a quality track, not because or in spite of the faith in the lyrics, but including them as well for the honesty they carry.
Devotees of his work will likely recall “Late for an Early Grave,” which here follows “What If…” also showed up as the opening title-track of a 2004 collection of Griffin‘s solo material — the upbeat “Never Surrender,” which closes on In-Graved, appeared on that release as well — and as all of the songs on that release were recorded between 1988 and 1994, it’s safe to assume both “Late for an Early Grave” and “Never Surrender” are both nearly 20 years old, if not older. Nonetheless, “Late for an Early Grave”‘s strong hook benefits from the beefier recording it gets here thanks to the recording job of Travis Wyrick (with whom Griffin also worked on Place of Skulls) and co-engineer Mike Dearing, and the song proves more than memorable enough to be worthy of the wider release, Swaney‘s bass and Puleo‘s keys backing the guitar and vocals with a sound that’s full and an increase in pace from “What If…” that’s engaging and refreshing while still consistent with the opening duo’s doomed rhythms.
Contrast arrives in “Fading Flower,” a semi-ballad heavy on the organ — presumably that’s Olson — which cuts the tempo again and centers itself around a start-stop guitar line and sparser overall feel, Griffin‘s voice rough but contemplative over the forceful punctuation of Campbell‘s snare. Bluesy lead lines arise around the midpoint, marking the beginning of a heavier, more driving section on which Griffin shows just how far he’s come in being able to convey emotion in his vocals, followed by culmination in a solo and return to the quieter beginnings of the track, which set a mini-build into motion again for the ending. As one of just two cuts on In-Graved to top six minutes — the other is the penultimate “Love Song for the Dying,” the longest on the album at 6:48 — “Fading Flower” uses its time well, and by the time it’s over, the album’s well-structured flow is evident in how much “Thorn in the Flesh” marks a return to the doomier side of the band’s sound, the guitar and keys working well together as Campbell‘s drumming and the bass provide the bed and what it’s probably fair to think of as In-Graved‘s sonic crux is set in motion, an accomplished sense of songwriting carried through in the side-B opener’s verse and deceptively lurching bridge.
The jam they get up to in the second half of the track is one of the fullest and most satisfying moments on the album, rounding out with a big rock finish that leads to the initially softer push of the Jethro Tull cover “Teacher,” which ends its chorus with a hook of a guitar line that’s classically doomed in Griffin‘s style, but given new context with the organ work and the solo layering that follows. Its structure is straightforward, but like with “Thorn in the Flesh,” In-Graved make “Teacher” a demonstration in why their self-titled wouldn’t have worked as another Place of Skulls record and why this project needed to be its own band. Organ is a big part of it, but not necessarily the whole story, since although Griffin has proved over time to be a dynamic performer and songwriter, the central idea here is different, bringing in all the bassists and so forth. “Love Song for the Dying” seems at first to be an answer to “Fading Flower,” but that mostly comes from the vocals, which move into and out of multiple layers smoothly atop the slower but not necessarily morose riffing.
As noted, “Love Song for the Dying” is the longest track on In-Graved, but it still ends oddly with a verse kind of deteriorating as Griffin holds out a vocal note and the organ sustains behind. One would almost expect that, placed as it is in the tracklist, “Love Song for the Dying” would offer the culmination of the album, leaving “Never Surrender” as an epilogue or afterthought, but it seems to step back from delivering one final victory lap through its chorus to instead let the closer do the task of offering a last burst of energy. Straightforward and more upbeat even than “Late for an Early Grave,” “Never Surrender” matches its faster step with a brighter outlook, the titular perseverance resting at the core with a catchy chorus and quick but effective transitional leads. It’s an unpretentious ending for an unpretentious album, kind of a curve after “Love Song for the Dying,” but it makes its own context and wraps In-Graved with the impression that perhaps the band hasn’t yet fully played their hand in terms of where they want to go with their sound. Or maybe Griffin just didn’t want to end on a downer. Either way, Victor Griffin’s In~Graved‘s Victor Griffin’s In~Graved makes a solid case for following the continued creative journey of its eponymous figurehead, and while some pieces will inevitably prove recognizable from Place of Skulls or Pentagram‘s recent run, the overall picture that results here proves distinct enough to mark its own place in one of US doom’s most influential discographies.
Tags: In~Graved, In~Graved self-titled, Svart Records, Tennessee, Victor Griffin, Victor Griffin's In~Graved