In the predawn hours of Aug. 2, 2010, the members of San Francisco death metal band Early Graves and their friends in the Funeral Pyre crashed their Chevy van on Interstate 5 in Oregon. No one was wearing seat belts, and the driver had fallen asleep. Graves vocalist Makh Daniels was ejected from the vehicle and killed — the only one of the group to suffer a major injury.
All of the musicians in the van that morning were young men in their mid-20s, riding the buzz surrounding their emerging bands. Such a tragedy could have easily halted their progress, or at least thrown them off course. But for Early Graves guitarist Chris Brock, losing his bandmate and best friend led him to an important realization about how to live. "I didn't want to be mad anymore," he explains over the phone from Philadelphia. "I was 25 and I decided I wanted to stop wasting energy on things I can't control."
As Brock talks about what befell his band, his tone of voice is totally even. He sounds the same remembering Daniels as he does when talking about the exciting show he's about to play with grindcore greats Pig Destroyer in Brooklyn a couple nights later, or the 1,200-mile drive they've all just endured. It's clear these experiences are all part of a whole for Brock, with the name of his band now an eerie reminder of his — and everyone else's — inevitable mortality.
Red Horse is Early Graves' first record since losing Daniels, an ebullient and energetic frontman who embodied the band's uncompromising ethos on- and offstage. It's a fitting tribute, at once grand and disheveled, anthemic and complex, a deeply thrilling listen that somehow manages to drag death metal's melodic palette and riff worship through punk's manic aesthetic. New vocalist John Strachan of the Funeral Pyre inhabits these rhythms effortlessly, with a raspy, yet enunciated howl that's closer to hardcore than the baritone growls of death metal. Brock says that Strachan was the obvious choice to fill Daniels' place in the band. "We [Early Graves and the Funeral Pyre] are more like a big family than bands," he says. "It was important to us that we stick together after we lost him."
The apocalyptic themes of the new record came together independently of Strachan's lyric-writing, during Brock's own observations and research into Revelations. "I started reading about the red horse. I just felt this weird attraction to those two words together. ... On a very shallow level it was really cool, this figure representing war and slaughter." He also came to see that the band had survived its own apocalypse. "It represented an oddly positive thing because of his perseverance," Brock says. "Everything fell apart for us after losing Makh, and somehow we fought through it all and persevered."
Red Horse's energy is so immediate and attractive, it's easy to overlook its thoughtful architecture. Songs like "Death Obsessed" and "Red Horse" exemplify Early Graves' ability to use morbid imagery and bleak themes to express a lust for life. "Death Obsessed" could even function as the band's manifesto. "We actually almost called the album Death Obsessed," explains Brock. "When John showed me those lyrics, I initially thought it was kind of morbid ... but that song is about a lot of things, like dealing with Makh's death." Specifically, the song illustrates the musicians' weary view of public reaction to the accident — the obsession with death is not theirs. "We get why people would be interested in that and the details of it," Brock says. "But we've always wanted to focus on Makh's life."
Metal bands seem better wired for handling tragedy, and perhaps that's because a deeper cynicism toward the world has braced them for struggle. "I remember Makh used to say that in order to play this kind of music — any kind of heavy music, whether it's metal, or hardcore, or punk — and do it any kind of justice, something about you has to be a little off," Brock explains. Then there's life on the road. Oakland-bred heshers Saviours call it "accelerated living," and maybe a side effect of dealing with overwhelming amounts of input every day is an increased emotional metabolism, or at least a casual familiarity with the tragic. "You go through those same steps dealing with tragedy as you do in making your music," Brock says.
Perhaps the biggest reason Red Horse sticks to the ribs throughout its hour-plus running time is its sense of dynamism, juxtaposing high registers, dense harmonies, and some truly gentle acoustic moments against a wall of aggression. Chalk this up to the members' eclectic musical taste, which includes Thin Lizzy, Fleetwood Mac, and gangsta rap, as well as a strong work ethic. "I'm really boring," Brock insists. "When we're not touring, I mostly just stay at home and write and read." But what really drives Early Graves now is friendship — and the strong memory of the singer who didn't survive that August morning. "This is still Makh's band," Brock says, "and we owe it to him to keep this going."