[1 August 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s easy for many people to immediately compare Graveyard to fellow Swedes Witchcraft. After all, Witchcraft guitarist Magnus Pelander used to be in Graveyard; both bands are bent on making records that sound like they came straight from 1969, and both specialize in replicating that classic heavy rock sound from 40-odd years ago. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll find that there are some striking differences between the bands. After proving to be as dead-on a Pentagram imitation as you’ll ever hear on its first two albums, Witchcraft broadened its sound considerably on 2007’s brilliant The Alchemist, incorporating more of a psychedelic rock vibe, even going as far as emulating Donovan and Roky Erickson. Graveyard, meanwhile, is nowhere near as ambitious. If Witchcraft wants to be the next 13th Floor Elevators, Graveyard is perfectly happy being the next Cactus.
In essence, Graveyard is all about lazy, heavy grooves, and the Gothenburg foursome did a nice job doing just that on its eponymous 2008 debut. It was all well and good, a loving tribute to a bygone era, but compared to the musical growth heard on Witchcraft’s The Alchemist, hearing Graveyard several months later seemed, rather unfairly in retrospect, like a bit of a letdown. However, the band’s fanbase steadily grew, and by the time the band had signed with German metal giants Nuclear Blast prior to the release of the follow-up, the hype machine was in full gear. Earlier this year, the much-anticipated Hisingen Blues topped the Swedish album chart, outselling even the ballyhooed return of Britney Spears. As all this was going on, the question for some on the other side of the Atlantic, including yours truly, was whether or not all this excitement was justified.
The differences between Graveyard and Hisingen Blues are subtle, but they’re there. Stylistically, not much has changed at all. Guitarists Joakim Nilsson and Jonatan Ramm continue to churn out the blues-drenched riffs and expressive solos; bassist Rikard Edlund and drummer Axel Sjöberg hold down the fort with a rhythm section that’s as fluid as it is heavy, while Nilsson shows impressive versatility, ranging from upper register Robert Plant-style screams to gentle blue-eyed soul. However, the more you let this record sink in, the more rewarding these ten new tracks start to feel. Built around the kind of fierce blues groove you’d expect a band like Clutch to deliver, “Ain’t Fit to Live Here” is a lot more primal than the technically refined Clutch, the blistering lead riff, Nilsson’s wails, and Sjöberg’s manic fills given a slightly distorted sound courtesy producer Don Ahlsterberg. It’s a wicked little boogie jam that’s catchy and propulsive.
For the most part, though, Hisingen Blues is all about, you guessed it, the blues. The repeated crescendos of “No Good, Mr. Holden” and “The Siren” echo the dynamic energy of Led Zeppelin’s first album in a far more sincere-sounding way than, say, every Zeppelin rip-off of the late-1980s. The cries of, “Oh Lucifer, please take my hand,” on the title track smack more of Robert Johnson at the crossroads rather than a Scandinavian metal band doing the Satanic metal shtick. Nilsson takes center stage on the gorgeous, facetiously titled “Uncomfortably Numb”, his singing echoing Robin Trower singer James Dewar and the rawer moments of the Guess Who’s Burton Cummings.
We get the odd hints at psychedelia, as on the Morricone-referencing “Longing” and the murky “Ungrateful Are the Dead”, but Graveyard wisely sticks to their form of heavy blues peppered with sly little old school sonic touches, such as the always-cool tactic of drenching the drums in phaser, as we hear on the ironically modern-titled “Rss”. There’s not too much to Hisingen Blues when all is said and done, but more than ever, it feels like Graveyard has its own identity, delivering a version of heavy blues rock with so much attention to detail that it stands out far apart from the band’s more modern-sounding peers.