Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Album Review: Graveyard - "Innocence and Decadence"

*Editorial note - we both wanted to review this album because we had strong thoughts about it and the band in general, so rather than fight over who would, we simply both did, as we are sometimes inclined to do.  D.M's review is after the break.

Chris C: When I survey the landscape of rock and metal, there is a worrying trend that I notice. Of all the bands that have debuted in the last decade or so, there are merely a handful that have made more than one album that I love. My tastes are odd, sure, but the fact that so few have hit the mark for more more than once is deeply troubling, and doesn't bode well for the sustained future of the scene. The main exception to that observation is Graveyard, the group who I wrote in a column is the best band of this new millennium. I didn't hear it at first, but over the last couple of years they have grown to be a legitimately great band, and all three of their albums are in regular rotation. Simply put; they are the type of band that not only do I want to hear, but that we all NEED to hear.

With that being said, I approached "Innocence & Decadence" with the highest of expectations. "Lights Out" was my co-album of the year in 2012, and had I not been foolish, "Hisingen Blues" would have had a shot at that title in 2011. Can Graveyard make it three masterpieces in a row?

That's actually a very tricky question, because I'm of two minds about this album.

Let's start with the good news: Graveyard still writes some of the best songs in the business today. They have a unique ability to take simple ideas, and turn them into something unforgettable. There's not a moment of flash in their music, nor do they ever pander to what could be called pop, but they're able to make their music damn near unforgettable. While other bands continue twisting their fingers to make the most arcane riffs imaginable, Graveyard takes three or four chords, and a simple lick, and runs circles around them.

Just listen to lead single "The Apple And The Tree" for an example of this. The main guitar part is a simple blues lick, and the rest of the song is built from strummed chords, but the songwriting is so deft that you don't notice how simple the message is. That's the mark of a great artist; being able to amaze without doing anything amazing. Graveyard has that ability, and they showcase it here. Songs like the gospel-tinged "Too Much Is Not Enough", the Cream-inspired "Cause & Defect", and the stunningly gorgeous closing ballad "Stay For A Song" are as good as Graveyard has ever been. They're songs Graveyard writes that every other band playing this kind of vintage feeling music simply can't muster.

But there is some bad news: This album brings in new influences that I'm not sure completely work. There's a heavier dose of psychedelic tones than in the past, which definitely keeps the music fresh, but it downplays the crisp attack of Graveyard's guitars. There are fewer of those memorable riffs on this album, with those brain-drilling guitar parts replaced by more atmosphere in the slower numbers, and almost punk fury in the heavier ones. I'm not sure either plays to Graveyard's strengths.

That misjudgment of who they are is my biggest issue with the record. The vocals on two tracks here are given to other members of the band, which is a decision I cannot understand. When you have a singer with the tone and expression Joakim Nilsson possesses, letting anyone else replace him is ill-advised. The others aren't bad singers, but they aren't Joakim, and I can't help but have my mind wonder what those songs would have sounded like if he had sung them.

Let's be honest here, the bad news doesn't amount to very much. This is still a Graveyard album, which means it's written at such a high level that even a few blemishes aren't going to make much of a mark. "Innocence & Decadence" is a great album by any standard, except maybe their own. Judging it solely on its own merits, there's no doubt that "Innocence & Decadence" is one of the five or ten best albums of the year. But judged against what Graveyard has already accomplished, I think it might be a slightly weaker album than their last two outings.

But, in fairness, this album is far more subtle than those records, and I'm thinking that it's the kind of album that is going to improve and open up the more that it's listened to. "Innocence & Decadence" is a very, very good album right now, but it may become a great one a month or two down the line.

D.M:  I am incredibly tempted to commit the ultimate in editorial sins: just simply say “I love this album,” drop my figurative pen, and let that stand as testament to how everyone should feel about Graveyard’s “Innocence and Decadence.”  I probably just killed all the suspense of my portion of this review.  Oh well.  Read on for more:

Let’s get one quick thing out of the way first – I totally understand why it has to be this way, but I remain aggravated that Graveyard is marketed almost exclusively as a metal band.  They’re not.  They’re just plain not.  They have much more in common with The Jimi Hendrix Experience than with even Black Sabbath and there are so many people (my dad, for one,) who would love this record but won’t ever know that because the ‘metal’ label disinterests them.  There are tons of old burnouts (and, well, new burnouts,) who will find kinship with the free-wheeling spirit of Graveyard’s latest opus.

Listen, not to get all Joe Friday about this record, but “Innocence and Decadence” doesn’t need poetic language to embellish the sale of its traits.  This is, beyond doubt, the most authentic pure rock album made in at least the last fifteen years, made by the band who is in competition only with themselves for that title.

It’s rare to find an album that does everything right, but this album certainly can lay claim to be in that discussion.  Exhibit A: there are forgotten piles of bands throughout the blues family tree (rock, metal, blues, grunge, etc,) that were given to write ballads because they thought they should, or because the album needed a break from the relentless savagery that in theory would tire out the listener.  But Graveyard doesn’t write slow tunes for slow’s sake – they think it through, and compose a disciplined and impactful piece of music that gives the listener a change of pace, while at the same time utilizing a different arsenal of aural weapons.  Case in point, “Exit 97.”  Moreover, Chris alluded to it above, but the way this album ends with “Stay For a Song” is both heartbreakingly emotional and brilliant in execution.  The song is woven almost entirely out of the combination of love lost and deep longing, and rather than end, just gently fades out into oblivion.  It’s a daring decision to end the record that way, but for the character of “Innocence and Decadence” it’s the right one.

I will cede that I agree with Chris that the employment of another person’s vocals was an unnecessary gamble.  It doesn’t turn out badly per se, but it certainly doesn’t turn out better than it would have with Nilsson still at the helm.  In addition, the added live chorus of “Too Much is Not Enough” might be a bit much (ironic for a song of that title.)

Enough about that.  Graveyard’s bend toward the flowing psychedelic works, even if only for the profile of this one record.  It seems to be a product of the live recording model, and while the eroded edges of the new guitar cadences might have dulled the experience of “Lights Out” or “Hisingen Blues” in particular, the free-form feel lends a certain flair-without-flair which is difficult to describe but works remarkably well, allowing for the unexpected fuzzy power of “The Apple and the Tree,” which just happens to be the album’s best song.  Graveyard took their classic rock accomplishments and rolled them back ten years to the swingin’ sixties, making the incredibly subtle but seemingly effortless transition between Led Zeppelin and Cream in just one record.  The fact that they tried it is one thing, the fact that they had the talent to do it another.  But the fact that they nailed it perfectly is worthy of a different level of admiration.

But we’re getting away from solid facts again.  Two things remain irrefutably clear and beyond argument about “Innocence and Decadence.”  First off, that no one has made an album of this particular style, in this high a caliber, in roughly forty years.  Second, that Graveyard is, without question, one of the best four or five bands working today.

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