Demo:listen: Grave Dust

Not all demos are created equal. Some turn out so strong that calling them demos seems unfair. Perhaps that’s why Portland-based quartet Grave Dust dub their debut not a demo, but an MLP. Whatever it gets classified as, Pale Hand absolutely kills.

Behind Grave Dust are four Portlandians united by the common interest in (proverbially) taking “people to a sleazy, shocking realm of slime and gore and keeping them captive there,” according to Grave Dust’s drummer Eli Wood.

Wood is joined by Jozy Kinnaman on vocals, Tim Lower on bass and synths, and—a man our readers should be fairly acquainted with by now—Daniel Kelley on guitars. Kelley also plays in Demo:listen alums Ossuarium and Draghkar. In fact, Kelley is on tour with Draghkar when we catch up with him to get the scoop on his incredible new death metal band, Grave Dust.

“Grave Dust materialized in the Spring of this year,” Kelley explains. For the moment he’s at home in Portland, having just pulled double-duty the night before at Tonic Lounge, where Grave Dust opened for Draghkar. He explains that Grave Dust began as “Eli, Jozy, and [himself] getting together and working on riffs, styles and ideas [they] wanted to convey.”

“By the time Tim was added to the lineup, we had three formidable songs put together, and hoped to add at least one more before we recorded. Once we found out the news about Eli leaving, we decided to put the pedal to the metal and knock out as many songs with him as we could. Those tracks would end up being ‘Pale Hand’ and ‘Purgatory Alone.’”

As far as how Grave Dust came together in the first place, vocalist Jozy Kinnaman explains how “things just kinda fell into place.”

“Portland is a pretty small place. I work at a tattoo shop in PDX and met Eli through the shop (he and his wife are both rad tattooers and amazing people). They had somewhat recently moved to Portland and when I found out Eli played drums and that we had similar tastes in music I started bugging him to start a band. I played in a band called Murderess (RIP 2013) but hadn’t really played music since and was really wanting to play in a band that was more like the music I listen to. I met Daniel through [E. Wendler] of Spectral Voice and we strangely ended up working right next door to each other. I told Daniel and Eli I wanted to play something like a cross between Grave and Mystic Charm and well, here we are.”

“Tim came in after we had written about 3 songs,” she adds. “We didn’t really know him other than just seeing him around but he just clicked right away. Pretty sure he showed up to practice knowing the songs better than we did.”

Besides bass, Tim Lower also plays synth on Pale Hand. Grave Dust’s use of synth is one of the factors that distinguishes them from the hordes of modern death metal bands. But the synths are there to augment the experience. They’re no gimmick.

According to Wood, Grave Dust’s “use of synth is more inspired by film.”

“The occasional use of synth on the album is . . . sort of a 5th gear we can occasionally hit to punctuate the way a film would in a moment of exceptional terror, or weirdness.”

Thanks to the incredible production job by none other than Charlie Koryn and the mixing and mastering skills of Joel Grind, those moments of exceptional terror and weirdness are perfectly captured and rendered.

“Recording with Charlie has been an excellent experience,” Kelley says. “I had worked with Charlie prior to the Grave Dust MLP, and knew he was the right guy for the job from the get-go. Aside from him being an extremely talented musician in his own right, Charlie has a great ear and is willing to give advice to help tweak songs to meet their best final form in the tracking process. Joel Grind also did an exceptional job with the masters, in particular helping the synth shine.”

Although we’re treating you to an exclusive full stream of Pale Hand, Grave Dust’s debut isn’t officially out until next Friday. Children of the Abyss will first release Pale Hand on cassette format, followed by a vinyl release on Crypt of the Wizard.

“I make an underground zine called Children of the Abyss that showcases the work of a collective of artists and writers who are passionate about horror and sci-fi. The zine is accompanied by a sort of audiobook that I release on cassette, so when we were talking about releasing Pale Hand on cassette I jumped at the opportunity to expand the zine into serving as a label for the release. We commissioned Josh McAlear to make our logo, and Timothy Hoyer to do the album artwork. Both artists are legends and heroes of mine as well as contributors to the zine so it was really great to get them involved with the project. Jozy ended up contributing to the newest issue with a photo of one of her SFX prosthetic applications, so the band and the zine just sort of creatively cross-pollinated, and the result will be a killer tape release.”

Kelley adds that the 12” will have an “alternate mix” done especially for vinyl by Dan Lowndes.

By now you don’t need me to tell you that these releases will be mandatory. Pale Hand is easily one of the strongest debuts this column’s ever covered. Every part of this demo, every corner, every layer testifies to the dedication and inspiration that went into its making. Pale Hand packs a lot of surprises and plays like a collection of highlights. But there’s nothing gimmicky at work here and between those highlights is substantial and well-written death metal.

And yet, as a track like “Purgatory Alone” demonstrates, Grave Dust are versatile players and can shift between subgenres so fluidly you’ll barely tell it’s happening. Just another aspect of what makes this debut so impressive. It’s obvious Grave Dust have no interest in whatever trends are moving through the underground.

“We weren’t trying to emulate anyone else, or play a particular style,” says Kelley. “We just knew we wanted it to be death metal and we had a lot of fun doing it.”

As for Grave Dust’s future, bassist Tim Lower explains: “Jozy is an amazing and passionate sfx artist so we’re starting to plan a video that promises to be amazingly gory. Writing new material for a super heavy and brutal full length, and planning some west coast tours are all on the list. We will be trying out new drummers at the end of summer as Eli is starting a family and a tattoo shop. We’re sad to see him go, but also truly happy for him. He’s been an amazing creative force and voice of wisdom in GD. First up though is the mix and master for the vinyl version of Pale Hand. Look out for that through Crypt of The Wizard in the coming months!”