Tombs’ second album stares the notion of a ‘sophomore slump’ straight in the face, politely clears its throat, and then sets said notion on fire using nothing but its will and an unlit match. But let me tell you, friends, despite the masterful display of soulful anger and compositional prowess throughout, this album is one tricky motherfuck to write about. Path Of Totality is a deep reservoir of sumptuous tones and shimmering, submerged complexities. At first listen, it presents a brave, bruising face of forward-driving aggression, but return visits to its caustic thrashing reveal a pulsating vulnerability at its center. It’s difficult to explain precisely the dark magic that this band weaves, and I think I’ve finally cracked why: while on its face the music seems simplistic, the band’s songs are impeccably constructed, and almost effortlessly flit through a number of tempo and stylistic changes before your reason ever catches up with your gut, which has long since been flung against the opposite wall and rendered entirely in hopeless thrall to this mesmerizing gloom.
Perhaps the first thing to notice is that the album art is all in grey-scale, which is fitting for an album that is simply stunning in its bleak sincerity. The most common description of Tombs’ sound is some kind of mish-mash of black metal and hardcore, and while that’s not totally off, it’s also a bit lazy, and more than a little misleading. You can certainly connect Tombs’ sound to artists like Castevet, Black Anvil, or even Thralldom, but there’s just as close a kinship to Today Is The Day, Neurosis, or perhaps a Steve Austin-fronted Swans. Hell, you could probably even make the case that Tombs is the terminally-depressed goth cousin to Mastodon’s Remission. What all of this misses out on, however, is that the true hallmark of Tombs’ music is its forceful economy of words and sounds. Take the hypnotic three-note melody that closes out “Vermillion”: It’s an exceedingly simple figure, but it displays a ruthless efficiency in the way the bass throbs out emotive chord changes while Andrew Hernandez II’s drums clatter off the walls with a barely restrained fury. Everything about Path Of Totality is deliberate, driving, and focused, and it grips the listener through rhythmic intensity more than sheer complexity, offering up an insistent stream of rough, jagged riffs and simple, haunting harmonies.
The production on Path Of Totality is denser and grittier than on Winter Hours, and might therefore require a bit of adjustment for fans of the debut album’s immaculate and immediate appeal. Winter Hours was always a bit of an anomaly because its sound was such a bright and bouncy mismatch with the dark pull of the songs themselves. I happen to think it excelled because of that odd juxtaposition, but Path Of Totality sees the band given a splashier, shimmering drum production, a much thicker guitar sound (which is nevertheless still recognizably Mike Hill’s sound), and a more prominent, threatening bass tone. Hill’s authoritative bellow is more believably unhinged throughout, and the fact that it is more submerged in the resonant morass winds up giving it all the more emotive intensity.
“Black Hole of Summer” angles its way through a handful of neck-wrecking tempo changes before its moody coda spills directly into the chiming, downcast chords of “To Cross the Land,” while the album’s title track compresses all the build and grandeur of a classic Neurosis construction into a tidy five-ish minutes, much in the way that Burst mastered on Origo. There are scattered touches of a new wave/post-punk shimmer here and there (see “Black Heaven” and “Silent World”), and Hill’s introduction of matter-of-factly despondent clean vocals across the album’s midsection (see “Vermillion”) adds a vaguely gothic, dark metal shading. “Passageways,” in particular, is a melancholy journey of deep, stately vocals and circular menace – just listen to the sinister pulse of Carson Daniel James’s bass toward the end. Mike Hill’s lyrics are stark and riveting in their Biblical directness: “I saw the lake of fire / I want to be swept away,” (from “Black Hole of Summer”) or “I am the plague / I am the sword / I am the hand of God in this silent world” (from “Silent World”). “Angel of Destruction” closes the album out rather abruptly, but in suitably downcast fashion, with simple words buried in well-deep sorrow and hushed for all the world.
The inescapable conclusion is that album is simply wonderful, and yet I still find myself struggling to find just the right words to tell you exactly why or how it’s wonderful. And maybe, just maybe, that’s the mark of exceptional art – any attempts to construct a critical narrative of its success disintegrate into grandiose gestures that barely conceal flimsy metaphor. Let me put it this way, then: There’s a moment in “Cold Dark Eyes” where everything drops out except for a quietly strummed clean guitar, and it’s only then that you realize the dense web of oppressively gorgeous sound that has enveloped the entire world that has been conjured from nothing by this album’s peerless magic. Path Of Totality feels like a scarred city slowly exhaling: the daylight hours teem with the heat and the movement of a thousand busy lives, but at night, when all bodies are at rest, the city has its reckoning.