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Steve Von Till - "A Grave Is A Grim Horse" (CD)

Steve Von Till - "A Grave Is A Grim Horse" CD cover image

"A Grave Is A Grim Horse" track listing:

1. A Grave Is A Grim Horse
2. Clothes of Sand
3. The Acre
4. Willow Tree
5. Valley Of The Moon
6. The Spider Song
7. Looking For Dry Land
8. Western Son
9. Brigit's Cross
10. Promises
11. Gravity

Reviewed by on August 11, 2008

"By the time of his fourth solo album, Von Till has no need to prove he's tireless or driven. He proves it again anyway."

For twenty years and on singing and playing guitar in Neurosis, Steve Von Till has helped lay the groundwork for nearly all modern innovations in metal. His band has long since transformed from talented but nondescript Bay Area crust punk to a primordial, unanswerable force with no real precedent in any scene then existing. By the time of his fourth solo album, “A Grave Is A Grim Horse,” Von Till has no need to prove he's tireless or driven. He proves it again anyway. Von Till is unwilling to let even a behemoth project like Neurosis define his musical identity, and his solo work is full on outlaw folk.

In the conservative sense, “A Grave Is A Grim Horse” can't be called heavy metal. Built out of percussive acoustic strumming, pedal steel, serpentine electric guitar and morose violin, it ignores metal's palette of sounds and techniques almost completely. Overdubs are used, but never to create the impression of a full band. Rather, they work toward a single complex melody, layered between his voice and various instruments. Without having heard Neurosis, no one could tell that Von Till is primarily a metal guitarist. But his folk work shares the apocalyptic presence of his better known band. Although quieter by far, it still intends to both focus and dominate minds.

All eleven songs here orbit around Von Till's drowsy, weather beaten, and half spoken vocals. It's the haggard assurance in his voice that lifts the simple compositions and arrangements above formula. In this bare bones setting, we hear every catch and rasp in his throat. At times his performance echoes Johnny Cash, or Swans' vocalist Michael Gira, or David Eugene Edwards from Woven Hand, but at his best, Von Till escapes the influences of both Neurosis and fellow folk musicians to emerge with a persona all his own, like some faceless and ancient wanderer maybe, on a futile journey across all creation.

Lyrically, Von Till can hold his own as a poet, plainspoken, but focused on precisely placed images. Sticking mostly to a noir spaghetti Western tone, he dwells over rocks, toil, and inevitability. The self-titled opening song is a standout here, as bizarrely creative phrases like “You cut your eyeteeth on a stone” are balanced against epic appeals to personal honor and laden with physical details. Here and elsewhere, even when his words slip into the downright cryptic, his emotional and understated delivery lets them throb with meaning.

This album should appeal to those who like post-metal's spiritually charged soundscapes and obsession with the land, and folk metal's use of stripped down compositions to evoke incredible heaviness. Ironically though, “A Grave Is A Grim Horse” might have gotten far more exposure if Von Till had never been in a classic, trendsetting metal band. Every metal head who comes on this album will know it as a Neurosis side project, but if Neurosis broke up before they re-forged heavy music, Von Till might have achieved as much renown as a folk singer and lyricist.

Highs: Von Till's wracked, heartfelt vocals continue to set the standard.

Lows: At times, the arrangements are too bare bones and repetitive.

Bottom line: Innovative, heavy folk from a metal singer reinventing himself.

Rated 4 out of 5 skulls
4 out of 5 skulls

Rating Description
Rated 5 out of 5 skulls Perfection. (No discernable flaws; one of the reviewer's all-time favorites)
Rated 4.5 out of 5 skulls Near Perfection. (An instant classic with some minor imperfections)
Rated 4 out of 5 skulls Excellent. (An excellent effort worth picking up)
Rated 3.5 out of 5 skulls Good. (A good effort, worth checking out or picking up)
Rated 3 out of 5 skulls Decent. (A decent effort worth checking out if the style fits your tastes)
Rated 2.5 out of 5 skulls Average. (Nothing special; worth checking out if the style fits your taste)
Rated 2 out of 5 skulls Fair. (There is better metal out there)
< 2 skulls Pretty Bad. (Don't bother)