The stark landscapes of the American West have long inspired mingled awe and dread in the creative mind. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven both deconstruct the impermanence and loneliness of this forbidding environment, setting antiheroes adrift in a morass of long shadows and bad men.
The Grave Is a Grim Horse, a folk-noir collection by Neurosis frontman Steve Von Till, is inspired by this darkness but chooses to turn his focus inward. Von Till, a transplant from the California coast to the forests of Northern Idaho, offers a set of brooding, contemplative songs that search for man’s place in the unforgiving and often brutal path of history.
The album is a work with serious themes, and Von Till imbues the songs with the appropriate gravity. The arrangements are sparse, and Von Till’s gravel-tinged delivery takes center stage. Though the foreboding mood is greatly enhanced by the oddly bent, atmospheric guitar and strings, Von Till’s voice sounds as if it is a part of the windswept plains. The Grave Is a Grim Horse moves eerily through a spare sonic landscape. The album’s quiet is appropriately foreboding and encourages the kind of introspection that is obviously occupying the artist’s thoughts.
And despite a resume that tends to bombast, Von Till shows great restraint throughout the album. The Grave Is a Grim Horse ruminates quietly on the fleeting nature of human life. Von Till reaffirms his commitment to theme by including some eclectic covers. His choices underscore his attention to detail, particularly “Clothes of Sand” by Nick Drake and “The Spider Song” by Townes Van Zandt. These songs work on two levels; in addition to being thematically related, the songwriters’ fates marry perfectly with Von Till’s brooding depiction of life and death.