TOTALITY, INDEED: NEW TOMBS MAKES A GOOD THING BETTER
My love of Tombs’ last album, Winter Hours, is well documented. It was my #4 album of the year in ’09, and I proudly displayed my critical hard-on for it for all the world to see in my initial review of the record. And yet, there was something holding it back from being an all-out classic: it was too short. And not in a “IT WAS SO GOOD I JUST WANTED MOOOOOORE!” way, but after “Seven Stars The Angel of Death,” there was a brief instrumental (“Old Dominion”) then it just… stopped. The arc of the album felt like it was setting you up for another song or two, then a big finish, but Winter Hours was ultimately a collection of (admittedly excellent) songs that petered out after about a half hour. Which in its own way is fine — better to understay your welcome than overstay it in terms of the eighty minutes a CD provides — but Tombs seemed to be reaching for so much more. Winter Hours was as frustrating as it was satisfying.
So despite the fact that Winter Hours was the band’s full length debut, Paths of Totality, their latest, feels like their first proper album. It’s significantly longer, yes, but instead of a collection of songs, it feels like a statement of purpose. They delve more deeply into testosterone-fueled blackened hardcore and (good) goth-y/post-punk avenues, as well as explore the relationship between the two. There’s plenty of the charm from Winter Hours still present, but Tombs also make good on the potential they showed on that album as well as fostering more to come. Their workmanlike soul and penchant for brashness remain intact, making them already one of the more interesting and satisfying bands in heavy music. But even though they’ve never a band that were wrapped up in shallowness or gimmicks in their brief existence, Totality feels more mature.
The first time through, however, one can find themselves anxious: on the whole, Paths of Totality is less about big, broad anthems and more about scorching the Earth. Which is fine, except that one may initially enter a Tombs album looking for quasi-melodic bellowing over a furious racket. The album is front-loaded with blackened sludgecore asskickers, from vicious opener “Black Hole of Summer” (with its “Hit the Lights”-but-sad intro) to the uneasy grooves of “Constellations” to “Bloodletters,” weaving back and forth between chunky, mid-paced metallic hardcore, jagged arpeggios, and black metal in only the way Tombs can. But what’s missing is frontman Mike Hill’s trademark yawp, the band’s soul (or at least the gateway to the soul just under the band’s seemingly dense surface). At first, it can seem like Totality is leaving something out, transfixed on one direction when it needs to explore its panoramic surroundings.
So one feels a little dopey thinking that when they reach “Vermillion,” the album’s pivot point. It’s a classic Tombs song: vigorous black metal opening ceding to thunderous drums and a serpentine Joy Division guitar part with Hill’s voice moving between Bauhaus-esque monotone, emotive howling, growling, and snarling. It’s the sort of song Winter Hours was building up to but never delivered on, as well as blowing Paths of Totality wide open. In a little under five minutes, the previous tracks make sense. “Vermillion” is Totality‘s Rosetta Stone: whether the album is heavy or just tangentially metal, “Vermillion” is the context in which the band want you to see things. It’s varied and intense because they want to take you deeper, and the song is a gateway as well as the bone thrown to its audience to be patient, as there’s great reward to be found.
From there, it gets super-Joy Division-y (“Passageways” especially, but the opening of “Silent World” evokes that band’s dancey sadness quite well) as well as returning to the heaviness of the album’s first half: “Cold Dark Eyes” and “Red Shadows” capture the band’s trademark Darkthrone-in-Carlsbad-Caverns ferocity nicely. Closer “Angel of Destruction” is a proper capper to an hour of Tombs exploring every inch of the sonic canvas: half-thunderous, forceful doom and half-sparse droning, it eases one out of the world Paths of Totality summons. The album feels longer than it actually is, but in a great way; it’s almost as if the band recognized Winter Hours‘ brevity and gave their fans plenty to chew on. Several times through, I still haven’t quite wrapped my head around it: the well-guarded emotional core that’s often obscured by heaviness or abstractness is always assuredly there, and the joy of the album is that there’s different ways to find it every time.
The production — as with Winter Hours — perfectly suits the band: rich in reverb, the drums sound enormous, the guitars multifaceted and evocative, basslines usually supportive but often independent and memorable, and the vocals fighting the rest for attention. It plays off the band’s greatest strength: collaboration. Chords would sound empty without Andrew Hernandez’s bombastic drumming. The drums would sound flashy and masturbatory if it weren’t for Hill’s versatile guitar work. Hill’s guitars would sound flaccid without Carson Daniel James’ low end (and in the band’s more quiet moments, they’d sound elliptical and pointless without the melodic center of the basslines). Even musically, Tombs’ mishmashing of genres sheds light on the tethers between them. But the point to all of it is that Tombs is a mighty band in a way that bands aren’t anymore. There’s a unique confidence to what they do that would get swallowed up by self-consciousness or concern over maintaining a fanbase with other bands. A bold fearlessness is the nature of Tombs, and Paths of Totality is the first real look we’ve gotten into their natural habitat. It proves they can go deep, and that they will — hopefully soon — go deeper.
(4 1/2 out of 5 horns)