Jeff Olson’s Retro Grave Do it Again for the First Time

If you’re going to kiss a record’s ass, a good reason to do so is the dude who made it was in Chicago doom legends Trouble, but much as I’ve tried, and tried, and tried to unconditionally accept Again, the self-released full-length debut from Jeff “Oly” Olson’s Retro Grave project, I just can’t do it. The album was originally download-only, and came out early in 2009, but was tweaked for physical issue and given its hard copy release in February. More or less since then (it might have been March), when I got the record, I’ve been avoiding reviewing it.

It’s not that Again is bad, but it is very disjointed. I get that Retro Grave is supposed to be an experimental project, but Olson as the chief songwriter, is still using the basic elements of heavy music that launched Trouble in the early ‘80s. It just feels like he has put them in the wrong order. The riff that drives “So So Souls,” for example, is killer, has that full-on swagger that made Trouble a metallic household name, but the surrounding elements aren’t cohesive, and after five minutes, when the track drops to organ, I can’t help but feel let down in a, “Hey, bring that back!” kind of way. Olson, who went to Berklee and clearly knows his shit, can only be doing it on purpose, and I don’t doubt that writing a song like “Monstah” (as opposed to “monster”) is a lot of fun, but that isn’t necessarily going to translate into the listening experience.

He is incredibly technically proficient, though anyone who’s ever heard him play should know that, but could stand to hire a vocalist, and if working with outside lyricist Paul Goodchild is going to result in lines like, “On a broke down track/Pull the lever/Can’t go back” from “Bad Train,” then I can only advise against doing it in the future. I can understand if after however many years with Trouble, Olson wanted to do something weird, experimental and not straightforward, but even with a spaced-out song like “Doldrums,” Again feels like it’s got competing impulses. On the one side, there’s the doom, and then there’s a voice that’s saying, “No, that’s not weird enough,” and then that voice starts tweaking knobs, throwing in off-time rhythms and pulling everything apart, resulting in an over-thought whole that doesn’t really do justice to Olson’s considerable talent.

Since finishing Again, Olson has pretty much fired the band, given the boot to guitarist Mike “Redbeard” Schermuly and bassist J. Cortes, leaving only Michael Leonard Maiewski on “strings” and Olson himself, so it’s safe to say even he knows a different approach is in order. What that will be on Retro Grave’s forthcoming Skullduggery, I don’t know, but one hopes the lessons of Again have made themselves apparent enough and even if Olson decides to take his band’s sound further afield with experimental reaches, he’ll be able to blend his influences in a more conglomerated way. Again’s final track, “Entropy,” which is basically a 12 and a half minute drum and organ solo, actually turns out to be a decent example of how to get it done, so the album is nothing if not full of surprises to its very end.

Retro Grave on MySpace

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