Tombs – Under Sullen Skies Review

In the early 2010s, powered by bands such as Deafheaven and Liturgy, “hipster metal” became the favorite pejorative for acts that thumbed traditional metal conventions. Embraced by the mainstream, many of these groups, unfortunately, just weren’t very good, which led to metal purists rejecting them. This resulted in said mainstream accusing said purists of being snobby gatekeepers. Cue lots of sulking, posturing and finger wagging. In among the noise, however, were some real gems that were unfairly tainted by the “hipster metal” label. Although less overtly “subversive” (read: “pretentious”) than their  Brooklyn counterparts, Liturgy, Tombs weirdly found themselves in this boat with their excellent debut, 2011’s Paths of Totality. Ostensibly black metal, the album was more interested in using the sub-genre as a springboard to explore hardcore, sludge and doom than in promoting the occult. So successful was this monstrous creation that the band achieved a rare degree of cross-over success, finding itself on indie websites such as Pitchfork. Since then, Tombs has continued to tread the line between the extreme and the accessible, producing two further solid albums. After a line-up switch up in 2018, and an excellent EP (Monarchy of Shadows) earlier this year, Tombs is back with its fourth effort, Under Sullen Skies. For those willing to keep an open mind, it’s yet another excellent addition to its impressive discography.

With each album and EP since Paths of Totality, Tombs has moved ever further away from its black metal roots. The band has never abandoned its original sound entirely, but it’s clear that lead guitarist Mike Hill’s ambitions are far more eclectic, with no desire to ape the Scandinavian second-wave bands. Under Sullen Skies follows this trend, sporting a beefier, thicker sound than any of its predecessors. It’s still an absolutely pitch-black, bitter soup of hardcore, punk and sludge, but this time, it’s been seasoned with some post-rock and – intriguingly – death doom. This is courtesy of the three new band members who hail from death metal band, Kalopsia. Their influence is clearly felt, and the album is consequently Tombs‘ most eclectic, and densest, collection yet.

 

Under Sullen Skies‘s greatest strength is that it manages to adroitly combine its many influences in such a way that feels organic and earned, while never foregoing the band’s early style. The overall mood is unremittingly dark, but the way this is achieved is by clever fusions of Tombs‘ multiple influences. “Barren” seems like straightforward black metal until a righteous, thrashy solo, courtesy of Six Feet Under’s Ray Suhy, triggers the introduction of shimmering post-metal. “Secrets of a Black Sun” melds doom with ethereal vocals, while “Mordum” has a hardcore, chugging, punk aesthetic that forces the track along remorselessly. These elements could have clashed. Instead, they complement and it adds up to a varied and entertaining experience.

The downside to Tombs is that an hour of nearly relentless bleakness can become wearying. I was walking through the cold, dark rain while the final notes of “Plague Years” pummeled my ears. After taking my headphones out, the icy misery of the weather seemed positively upbeat compared to what I had listened to. The denseness of the music is like a black hole at times, limiting its replay value. This is predominantly due to both the repetition of some of the tracks, and the length of the album as a whole. “Secrets of the Black Sun” is interesting, but its plodding beat causes it to lose momentum, which makes the seven minutes feel prolonged. “Angel of Darkness” is also seven minutes of unrelenting dissonance, which is exhausting as it’s the penultimate track of the album. Some judicious editing would have made the experience punchy rather than occasionally tiring.

2020 has felt like the year that USBM has really expanded itself. Whether embracing the gorgeous spatial geography of the USA (Velnias), the land’s blood-soaked history (Wayfarer) or the chaotic boiler pot of its urbanity (Imperial Triumphant), a real sense of identity has emerged. You can now add Tombs to that mix. Unshackling themselves from the tiresome “hipster” moniker, this frenetic, dark collection sounds both contemporary and bold, while also comfortingly familiar to those who love the original albums. Like the city and the land that inspires it, Under Sullen Skies is big, brash, violent, sometimes overstuffed, occasionally bemusing, but also compelling and intriguing. Don’t miss it in the end of year rush.


Rating: 3.5/5.0
DR: 8 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Season of Mist
Websites: tombscult.bandcamp.com/  | facebook.com/TombsBklyn
Releases Worldwide: November 20th, 2020

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