The Knoxville musician who is arguably best known within the larger community of his fellows isn’t named Scott Miller or R.B. Morris or John Davis, and he doesn’t play folk or bluegrass or Americana or any kind of traditional rock 'n' roll. No, the local musician most revered within the (admittedly limited) confines of his peer group is singer/guitarist Victor Griffin, and his band Place of Skulls propagates the species of weighty, apocalyptic heavy metal forebodingly recognized as doom rock.
“Victor’s last group, Pentagram, was very important among people who play the kind of music we do,” says Skulls bassist Dennis Cornelius, who relocated from Oklahoma to join the four-year-old band in summer of 2003. “Coming here was my chance to play with somebody who’s kind of a legend in that arena.”
A Knoxville native, Griffin founded Death Row—a lumbering four-piece hard-rock outfit that took its cues from early '70s proto-metal such as Black Sabbath and Blue Cheer—in 1979. The band moved to Washington, D.C., in the early 1980s, and later took the name Pentagram, which was more reflective of the members’ occult fixations.
But years of malevolent hard rock and iniquitous living took a toll. Griffin finally left the band in 1996. Moving back to Knoxville, he took a two-year hiatus from rock, during which he resolved some long-standing personal and spiritual issues, and found motivation anew for making the music he loved.
“There were a lot of problems, especially a lot of drug problems when I left Pentagram,” Griffin says. “We were all cultivating our own extremes in that regard. I needed to get back on track as a musician, instead of as someone who drank too much and did a lot of drugs. I needed new ideas and a fresh start.”
Griffin and original Pentagram bassist Lee Abney (later replaced by Cornelius) recruited drummer Tim Tomaselli in 1999, and founded Place of Skulls, a unit with all of the thundering, riff-conscious potency of their former group, but none of its darker inclinations.
The band has since released two full-length recordings on the independent heavy-metal label Southern Lord, including 2002’s Nailed and last year’s With Vision. Both albums offer satisfying apportionments of tasty, visceral Sabbathian rock, full of bassy overdriven six-strings and the gracious analog warmth of a classic 1970s recording.
But listen closely to the vocals and you’ll hear something more— messages of faith and spiritual actualization, lyrics expressing sentiments far removed from the occult delvings and unadulterated hedonism of Pentagram and other bands of its ilk. Cornelius notes that even the droning heaviness of Place of Skulls’ music is possessed of a certain powerfully meditative quality, as well-suited to rumination as it is to head-banging reverie. “It’s melancholy, in a soul-searching kind of way,” he says. “To me, it’s a very introspective kind of music.”
“I’m still on a search for where I want to be spiritually,” Griffin maintains. “I was ready to write songs with a more positive outlook. After a while, I realized that being teammates with Satan wasn’t working out. I’m not interested in preaching to anyone, but some of my lyrics have a Christian slant.”
Griffin sometimes worries that the band’s religious allusions and philosophical questing will alienate core fans of old-school heavy rock. But for all of its lyrical forays into spirituality and even its sometimes overtly Christian imagery, Place of Skulls still has a sonic power as well as a pedigree vastly superior to that of most of its darker peers.
Of considerable interest to indie-metal aficionados is the presence on With Vision of cult guitar hero Scott “Wino” Weinrich, veteran of seminal underground outfits St. Vitus and the Obsessed. A close friend of Griffin since the early 1980s, the Maryland-based Weinrich joined Skulls long enough to record the band’s second album, then parted amicably when their interstate collaboration proved untenable. The tit-for-tat lead guitar interplay between him and Griffin is one of the highlights of With Vision, an album already possessed of many.
“Having Wino was great while it lasted, but it was a logistical nightmare,” Griffin says. “He has another good band going now [Spirit Caravan], and his presence on our record really helped us out promotionally.”
And promotion is something hard to come by in the insular, far-left-of-mainstream plane of underground metal. “When we play out of town, it’s hit or miss,” Griffin says. “We can play to hundreds one night, go 30 miles down the road and play to a dozen. Ours is a growing scene, but it’s growing very slowly.”
“Victor’s name opens some doors, and people know who we are, in this kind of music,” Cornelius says, laughing. “But that’s the operative phrase. We’re not kidding ourselves, because outside of maybe straight-up noise rock, this kind of music is one of the least accessible genres out there.”