(Gates of Hell 2017)
This Swedish band is something of an enigma. Late last year, the name Gravebreaker suddenly began cropping up all over the Internet, with a full album of strong material available digitally via Bandcamp, where their page proudly proclaimed “Only Traditional Heavy Metal, Accept No Substitute!” and bandied about names like Accept, Mercyful Fate, Motorhead, and “80s Black Sabbath.” Gravebreaker did not (and to my knowledge, to this day still do not) have any social media presence, not even a perfunctory, barebones Facebook page. Nonetheless, Gates of Hell Records, a sub-label of Cruz Del Sur, released the band’s debut album, ‘Sacrifice,’ on CD a month or two ago (there are also very limited cassette and vinyl versions for those who are so inclined), so Gravebreaker’s album is officially out there and available.
Any hopes that the CD booklet might shed some light on the band’s history and status are for naught, inasmuch as the booklet provides only lyrics to one song (“Sacrifice”), a photo of the three band members, and cursory credits. Evidently, the album was self-produced and Gravebreaker’s members consist of Nightmare on vocals, Fury on guitar and bass, and Devastation on drums. Fury wrote all the music, and Nightmare wrote all the lyrics. The album was recorded, oddly, in both Sweden (specific locations undisclosed, although I understand the band hail from Gothenburg) and Tennessee (???). And we learn that “No synthesizers were harmed in the making of this album.” That’s basically it. So Gravebreaker remain shrouded in mystery. I gotta say, I find this approach refreshing in an era where it seems every brand-new band is doing Facebook posts to announce what they had for breakfast and hype each riff they write five minutes after it’s been composed. Less is more sometimes, and I like things to be a little mysterious and unexplained. Gravebreaker fit that bill.
What matters, of course, is the music, and Gravebreaker have done an outstanding job on this ‘Sacrifice’ album. Clocking in at a lean 10 songs and 38 minutes, the Swedes waste no time and keep everything concise and to the point until the six-and-a-half minute closing tune, “Messenger of Death.” They have studied their ‘80s influences well, and the record feels very much inspired by the underground true metal scene of that glorious decade. I know vocalist Nightmare has taken some flak for his limited approach, but I think he’s a perfect match for the band’s rough’n’ready sound. His raw delivery reminds me very much of early Rock’n’Rolf (remember how he kind of half-sang, half-talked his way through the lyrics on ‘Gates to Purgatory’ and ‘Branded and Exiled’?) crossed with Razor’s Stace “Sheepdog” McLaren. In the riffing and songwriting, I hear a lot of the energy and spirit of bands like Running Wild (first two albums only – no pirate melodies here), Atlain, Brainfever, Ostrogoth, Warrant, Faithful Breath, Gravestone, Killer, and so on, you know that early Mausoleum Records / Noise sound. The songs are catchy and memorable, with sturdy riffs, mostly upbeat tempos and strong choruses. Check out tracks like “Pray for Death,” “Violent City,” or “Kill and Kill Again” to see what I mean. Where Gravebreaker surprise on occasion is in their creative (but sporadic) use of atmospheric keyboards, such as the harpsichord at the end of “Sacrifice” or the “Mr. Crowley”-type intro to “At the Gates of Hell” and the spacey keyboard solos featured in “Messenger of Death.” These touches are inarguably cheesy, but they aren’t overdone, they are somewhat unique, and they certainly enhance the mood, lending kind of a haunting air to the proceedings.
No doubt there will be (and has been) some wringing of hands over the (deliberately?) lo-fi production job on ‘Sacrifice.’ Fury’s guitars don’t have a whole lot of power (or fury, for that matter) and Devastation’s drums don’t exactly devastate. The album’s got that mushy, fuzzy, low-budget ‘80s underground metal production all the way. That may be off-putting to some, but I think it complements the package well for what Gravebreaker were trying to (and, to a large degree, did) achieve on ‘Sacrifice.’ This album makes me smile and bang my head every single time I listen to it. It’s not complicated, it’s not terribly original, but it pays homage to an era of heavy metal that I cut my teeth on, and it does it well and with loving attention to detail. If you’re like me, then odds are good you’ll find ‘Sacrifice’ to be a fun romp with surprising replay value. Check it out.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~