Tombs presents me with something of a conundrum.
Ordinarily, if you handed me a record and said, “Check this out: It’s a hybrid of black metal and NeurIsis post metal,” I’d thank you and nod, and then I’d casually hide that record behind a plant and walk away when you aren’t looking. It’s been a long time since either of those styles excited me, and most of the cross-breeding between them just seems regrettably destined to take the form of fifteen-minute-long, riffless paeans to the Tree Nymphs Of The North. Chances are, the plant would enjoy that more than I would, being not too far removed from a tree itself.
Traditionally, those descriptors are those I’ve most seen attached to Tombs, but that appears to be changing, and for the better, if you ask me. Because if you handed me that record and said, “Here’s a mash-up of goth and blackened sludgy metal,” I’d be exponentially more likely to care.
Now, therein lies the conundrum: Do I really like a band when that which I like best about them is the part where they don’t sound very much at all like themselves? Tombs is a band that I’ve seen praised by persons whose tastes I respect – on this site and others – but I haven’t cared all that much for any of Tombs’ records, until last year’s All Empires Fall EP, which saw that greater gothic influence and finally put them squarely on my radar. Prior to Empires, through all the records that everyone else enjoyed, all I really got was some good riffs amongst a bunch of blackened Neurosis trudge, which was fine, but not my bag, baby.
But then here we are with The Grand Annihilation, which further ups the goth factor in their new-ish goth-black-sludge amalgam, and I find once again that the parts of it that I enjoy most are those that a long-time Tombs listener might possibly like the least. Mike Hill’s clean tone lands between the vampiric baritone of Peter Murphy and the hopeless monotone of Ian Curtis; jagged post-punk guitars abound, now more prevalent against the filthy chiming chords, tremolo melodies, and occasional churning blast. The trudging doomy centerpiece “November Wolves” sounds like a roughed-up Paradise Lost (albeit sans a beautifully melancholic Gregor Mackintosh lead), and it’s easily The Grand Annihilation’s shining star. Further highlight “Saturnalian” almost literally quotes Murphy with a brief “into the chasm” nod to “In The Flat Field,” and though a bit overlong, closing number “Temples Of Mars” wraps things up on a perfectly gloomy high.
Those long-timers looking for the band’s old sound will find suitable blackness in the first three tunes, from the blasting icy melodies in “Black Sun Horizon,” which also sports a killer thrashing riff leading into the doomier second half, through the cleanly intoned “old world chaos” of “Old Wounds” that previews the goth to come. And they should still make no mistake that, though the riffs and speed of black metal aren’t always present, the atmosphere remains. This isn’t bouncy New Wave retro-post-punk – this remains despondent, bleak, droning; the melodies are linear, drawn out; the vocal passionless, detached, as cold as the tremolo guitar lines or the crunchy simple chords. Tombs has long flirted with the jangly dissonance of post-punk, long embraced the cold clean vocal line, although never as much as here. The Grand Annihilation is just a furthering of that embrace, but it is a zero-sum game, admittedly – all of that increase is done at the expense of the sludged-up ragged-blast blackened identities of Path Of Totality or Savage Gold.
My experience with The Grand Annihilation has been this: initial piqued interest, and then a short run of multiple listens, and then a pretty quick burn out. Subsequent spins haven’t proved as immersive, and I found myself going back to All Empires Fall for my Tombs fix. The reasons are two-fold: Empires is better, and Empires is also shorter. A little Tombs tends to go a pretty good distance for me, and the EP format fits better what I want to hear from them, even as they gradually shift their sound towards my comfort zone. Furthermore, on Empires, the gothic influence is blended more seamlessly, likely because it’s not as prevalent, whereas on Annihilation it ultimately serves as much to define its portion of the album as to delineate a clear divide between itself and the blackness elsewhere.
As the two halves of the formula choose up sides, Annihilation feels like an album divided. I have my half, and black metal enthusiasts get the rest. The likes of “November Wolves” and “Saturnalian“ are as good as my version of Tombs has been so far, and likely the basis for where Tombs should go should they wish to continue this particular metamorphosis. Still, since everything I like about The Grand Annihilation is everything that sounds less like earlier Tombs, I can certainly see where those enthusiastic about previous efforts might find this Annihilation a bit off-putting.
But then again, maybe I’m just not really a fan…
Or am I?