Auckland, New Zealand sludge band Shallow Grave are veritable harbingers of doom, but their long-awaited return is still a very blessed relief. Shallow Grave’s mammoth self-titled debut was released back in 2013, and that album smashed minds, hopes and dreams. The band’s new album, Threshold Between Worlds, is also a monstrous beast. And the heavy-duty noise within feels like a gateway to both the eternal and infernal.
Threshold Between Worlds takes a different tack to Shallow Grave’s debut. Much of the new album is improvised, and it’s more experimental too. Obviously, tinkering with an already celebrated template might lead to some nervous hand-wringing. But there’s no need to fret.
Shallow Grave’s diverse influences have always been woven into a vast and unnerving tapestry. Bands like Khanate, Neurosis or Grief have played important roles in aesthetic terms. But so have avant-garde adventurers like Sunn O))), Swans or Earth. Threshold Between Worlds sees Shallow Grave combining their most outlier ideas and influences yet, adding twisted tape loops, samples, and other outré elements into their abrasive sludge and doom.
Those extra layers of sinistrous/subterranean sonics add more depth to Threshold Between Worlds' lengthy tracks. And Shallow Grave explore and exploit every harrowing cavern therein. What also helps to secure Threshold Between Worlds’ grim presence is the band’s decision to record the bulk of the album live. And Threshold Between Worlds duly thrums with raw, visceral energy. Merciless tracks like “The Horrendous Abyss” and “Garden of Blood and Bone” mix doom-drenched post-metal with brain-frying psychedelia, and then Shallow Grave shove that into the gruesome maw of their feedbacking sludge. Guitarist Mike Rothwell and guitarist/vocalist Tim Leth ensure the ten-tonne trampling riffs are presented in all their filthy glory. But as pulverising as those riffs are, some of Threshold Between Worlds’ best moments arise when nightmarish drones or unsettling ambient passages are juxtaposed with the most crushing noise.
In fact, the spine-chilling atmospherics on Threshold Between Worlds highlight just how harsh and hulking the album is. (Especially when the album's heaviest components come crashing back into play.) Those unorthodox atmospherics creep and crawl, ratcheting up the subconscious tension. And while Shallow Grave’s songs churn through thundering sludge and doom, it’s often those underlying noisescapes that really amplify the traumatic unease.
Shallow Grave’s maximal/minimal approach is employed to great effect on the colossal “Master of Cruelty”. The song sees giant crescendos torn down by obliterating shock waves. And the bulldozing momentum of bassist Brent Bidlake – and ominous tempo of drummer James Bakker – drive “Master of Cruelty” (and us) ever-deeper into the heart of darkness.
Thematically,Threshold Between Worlds explores blood sacrifice, and the album’s fusion of the sacred and profane aligns perfectly with Shallow Grave’s skill in melding harmonic and narrative horrors. You might struggle to decipher lyrics in the hailstorms of noise, but Threshold Between Worlds’ violent, ritual intensity is made explicitly clear. Although Threshold Between Worlds is different to Shallow Grave’s debut, the albums do share a couple of crucial similarities. Both are extremely heavy releases and their exteriors are scarred by their glorious abrasiveness. However, the success of both albums also lies in the sheer magnitude of their depths.
Like Shallow Grave's debut, Threshold Between Worlds exudes apocalyptic – albeit deeply hypnotic – music. The album often feels like it's channelling communiqués from another realm. But, in more down-to-earth terms, it's simply great to see Shallow Grave broadening their artistic reach. (Especially considering so many NZ metal bands seem utterly terrified of taking any creative risks.)
Ultimately, exploring different ways of delivering their malevolent message really underscores Shallow Grave’s uncompromising artistry. Threshold Between Worlds features all those wretched, heavyweight treks through damnation that fans of hellbound sludge and doom adore. But those creeping atmospheric stretches highlight Shallow Grave’s determination to find new ways to fuck with our minds.
Long may those sociopathic impulses reign. Bands that make the unreal feel very real are a rare breed. All hail the kings of blood-red despair. Shallow Grave are back, crueller than ever.
(Threshold Between Worlds is released 31 October 2018)