Five years ago, Tor Johnson Records celebrated their 10th anniversary with a 7-inch compilation, featuring songs from Saint Jude, Now Denial, Pretty Faces, and A Fine Boat, That Coffin. It came housed in a handmade, screen-printed jacket made from recycled LP sleeves, and included a download code for more than twice as many digital bonus tracks, featuring the likes of Weak Teeth and Jesuscentric. It was a cool reflection on how the label had evolved over its first decade.
We’re now at the 15-year mark, and the Closer To The Grave — 15 Years of Tor Johnson compilation is a full LP, housed in a more professional package. The recording quality is amped way up from the scratchy recordings of the last celebration. And while we might not get tracks from some of the label’s earliest heavy hitters like Weak Teeth and Now Denial, it’s a really solid reflection of how great Tor Johnson has become in the last five years.
While Saint Jude does take us back to the early years of the label, Closer To The Grave is focused more on the here-and-now of Tor Johnson than on the past. Tyler Daniel Bean has rapidly become one of the label’s figureheads, and his “Gardening & Everything Involved Therein” is another demonstration of the artist’s ability to play quiet music which hits as hard as any of the big-riffing acts on this comp.
That’s not to say Closer To The Grave lacks in those big riffs. Quite to the contrary: Bloodpheasant, Death to Tyrants, and Lunglust all bring the heavy quite ably. There’s also the less hardcore, but no less riffy cuts from Late Bloomer and Aneurysm, both of which count among the album’s highlights.
The back-to-back hit of an unreleased jam from Late Bloomer’s Things Change LP recording session and a new Aneurysm track comes near the end of the record’s second side, but it’s like a race to the finish line when you get these two catchy pieces of punk rock right before the almost-grind of Ratstab’s “Get the Glory.”
Closer To The Grave — 15 Years Of Tor Johnson is not just a great compilation, nor is it just a wonderful snapshot of a really fantastic label — and it’s both of those things, in spades — but it’s a record which will have you hoping there’s a 20th anniversary installment coming five years down the line (maybe a 2xLP at that point?). When you hear music and hope for a future, that’s the real success.
Despite the fact that all the tracks were recorded at different places and times, the mastering by Dan at Sun Room Audio has given these 10 songs a real unity. It’s especially impressive when you consider that Sea of Storms’ track was recorded at their practice space, and I didn’t notice it until I started looking at the liner notes. Given these songs are ones you’re going to want to play loud, that mastering does solid work in making certain that this never turns into a dissonant mess. This sounds good at a reasonable volume, but it sounds great cranked ‘til the knob falls off.
The striking cover image of the fox standing atop a mountain of skulls certainly grabs the eye, as does a portrait of said fox on the back side of the jacket. The art’s by Keith Rosson, known for his work on albums from Anchor Arms and quite a few other punk rock and hardcore releases. It’s tough, but with a certain sort of humor that Tor Johnson’s always had. The purple marble vinyl is a little murkier than I’d prefer — it looks a little like a remainder color than something intentional — but it’s a nice touch, nonetheless.
Closer To The Grave — 15 Years Of Tor Johnson is available on vinyl from Tor Johnson Records.