Homespun charm: Magic Circle and Earthen Grave

Can modern music that entirely references decades-old influences ever be evaluated on its own terms? Or are we condemned to simply say…if you like style x then you will like band y? But surely, no matter how well executed the imitation is, it’s still an imitation. The criteria we use to evaluate modern ‘retro revival’ genres – whether it be old school death metal, stoner metal, or metal that draws deeply from the well of classic heavy metal of 70s and 80s – will always be haunted by the spectre of novelty. Worse, I find my tolerance for such music far more dependant on mood. Some days I simply have no patience for listening to an album I have heard a hundred times before from different artists old and new. Other times, I give it a free pass, it’s a bit of fun, harmless, generally honest, well crafted. This is no basis for music criticism. So let’s see if we can drill down beyond such whims.

America’s Magic Circle have been churning out albums pretty steadily throughout the 2010s. The first of these, their self-titled of 2013, was a solid rejuvenation of the classic heavy metal framework. Brendan Radigan’s vocals are reminiscent of Zeeb Parkes of Witchfinder General, albeit with more operatic power and dynamics. And they really go a long way to carry this otherwise average metal along. Production wise there is an attempt to recreate that clumsy rawness of early heavy metal, with a more beefed up bass drum sound. The whole approach is what for a while was known as ‘purist’; no flares, no synths, just guitars, and drums and nothing else.

All well and good, but what of the compositions themselves? Well it really is just a tour of classic metal. There is elements of Witchfinder General, but also bigger names like Sabbath and Priest, Maiden and Rainbow. MC gel all these influences together into an energetic and dynamic album of new but familiar heavy/doom metal. The whole package is well put together and undeniably enjoyable to listen to. Beyond the nostalgia porn however, there is an ambition and magic to the structure of these tracks. Magic Circle have breathed life into old formulas by reminding us that beneath the familiar licks and the vintage aesthetics lies a transcendent romanticism to metal.

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This runs through many forms of metal, from the more traditional approaches that Magic Circle reference here, through to thrash, death metal, and black metal. And there is no doubt that this is a fine example of applying these ideas to old tools. And yet…and yet, there lurks a spectre beneath this pleasing awning: distraction. This album could never be more than a re-iteration of these archaic values, not a new development. Because at this point the revivalism that MC go for is a distraction from the music. If you took the ideas behind the compositions on this release and acknowledged that the last thirty years of music history has occurred, i.e. referenced it a little in your influences, then you may have the blueprints for something new.

As it stands this music is self-limiting. From the moment the first note is struck it is clear that we are being treated to a nostalgia fest. One where we can re-imagine the music of the past but slightly better. But why paint yourself into such a corner? Why not take the obvious talent that every member of Magic Circle has and point it in a new direction? I think the answer may have something to do with risk aversion. Making a slick, well-made retro revival album is a sure winner. Taking these elements and blending them with something new has a greater chance of failing. But what great art was ever made without risk?

Earthen Grave were a little-known doom metal band from Chicago. They put out one self-titled LP in 2012 before disbanding two years later. We’ll call it doom metal, but it’s a sort of hybrid of doom, heavy metal, heavy rock, and…country music. I’ll elaborate. What you have in Earthen Grave is a heavy metal/rock band, accompanied by vocalist Mark Weiner, who pretty much sounds like a country singer (albeit a very talented one), and classically trained violinist Rachel Barton Pine.

If all this sounds like a hot mess novelty act you would be forgiven for thinking so. But Earthen Grave have made some very intelligent decisions in the process of writing this album. Unlike many ‘folk’ bands that use a violin – to add texture, to give off a certain vibe – Barton is using the instrument like a lead guitar. From listening to this record there’s no doubt that she is a virtuoso, but her use of the instrument is one that interacts with the guitars as equals; they play off each other in jams and complement each other in harmonies. The instrument is worked into the very foundations of the music, as an essential element to it; as opposed to more common uses of the violin within metal as simply chucked on as an afterthought to give the music folk-cred.

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As well heavy/doom metal, this album indulges in many rock formulas – ballads, big choruses, catchy hooks – but it is delivered with such class and daring originality that one simply cannot help but get carried along with it. Every time one thinks they are being fed hammy American rock with little to recommend it, Earthen Grave turn the music on its head and throw each track into a completely unexpected direction. Yes, the rock techniques are there, such as leaving room for improvisation, the instruments playing call and response. But they are usually couched within a well-disciplined structure that always brings the narrative back to a logical conclusion. This puts it more in line with metal in terms of the narrative compositional technique.

Some may find the relentless Americana hard to swallow. Earthen Grave do essentially sound like a country band playing metal after all. But if you can look past that, this novel approach to doom metal has a wealth of treats to reveal. In addition they have thrown in a cover of Witchfinder General’s ‘Burning a Sinner’ and Pentagram’s ‘Relentless’. Although for my money they don’t really bring anything new to the table with these numbers, and as a result they simply act as filler. Aside from that however, this is a uniquely charming album which is all the more so for the fact that it should be so incredibly shit.

From the outside, Earthen Grave look like an awful novelty act that should be dismissed as such, and Magic Circle look like a slick, well crafted modern heavy metal outfit. When in actuality the opposite is true. You may not like the way Earthen Grave have served up their dish, but there’s no denying they harnessed their ingredients to great effect. And it’s true that Magic Circle should not be dismissed outright – it is after all, a pleasure to listen to this album – but it is time to ask more of artists than to offer up nothing but references to – and elaborations on – the past. and for that reason I am serving up Earthen Grave as my pick of the week.

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