Imagine for a moment that Entombed, instead of following up Left Hand Path with Clandestine, followed it up with Necros Christos’s Doom of the Occult (except that it wasn’t bloated and terrible like the real Doom of the Occult). Still with me? I’m not sure I’m still with myself, so let’s try it this way:
Four years after their much-lauded (and much ass-kicking) debut album The Horror, the young Swedes in Tribulation have returned with a monumental follow-up album that, while still riding on a few links to the manic, thrashing energy of the debut, basically spits in your eye, cackles fiendishly, and then proceeds to hold a wholly unexpected masterclass in twisted, atmospheric, psychedelic blackened death metal. Still with me?
Like Necrovation, The Chasm, or Degial, Tribulation stretches the traditional forms and sounds of death metal in mysterious directions. The opening of the first song “Vagina Dentata” sounds like a shamanistic summoning of the Doors or Ennio Morricone, and the way it transitions into “Wanderer in the Outer Darkness” is excellent, like finally tipping over some long-sought threshold.
One of the most notable changes from The Horror is that the production here isn’t particularly heavy. There’s lots of free space at play between the instruments, and the guitar tone is relatively clean. This leaves the bulk of the heavy lifting to the songwriting and atmosphere, but happily both pick up the slack admirably. Listen to the midsection of “Spectres,” for example – things have lightened up and opened out, and the attention is clearly focused on the bass, but the bass is somehow both muted and really loud, like it’s being played with real, malicious intent on the other side of a locked corridor in a medieval keep. As a result of this balance between production and atmosphere, The Formulas of Death is equal parts ripping and psychedelic, and that’s a cool place for a death metal album to be.
Another spectacularly endearing feature of the album is that so much of it feels like the band is just trying to come up with as many great reasons as possible to have killer solos squealing everywhere. Check the section about four minutes into “Spectres,” for example: not only is the outbreak of soloing velvety sweet, but the entirety of the song seems to have been crafted to lead to that point. The halfway point of “Randa” introduces a lead/duet section that sounds vaguely like an organ, but it could just as easily be another heavily-effected guitar, and in either case, it’s another perfect example of using the architecture of the song as an excuse to spill forth as much emotive, psychedelic soloing as a body could want, and all against the backdrop of some rather moving chord progressions.
“Through the Velvet Black” is one of the album’s best songs – it keeps up an ever-shifting intensity throughout, and demonstrates the album’s peculiar compositional mode. Most of the time, the song isn’t dealing in “riffs” the way we usually think about them; instead, the guitars and drums meet up into interlocking gallops and grooves, allowing spiky leads to dance on top, and thrash rhythms to propel the listener through. The tremolo riff introduced just after the five-minute mark underscores the black metal influence on Tribulation’s style. The one exception to the “not really riff” rule of the album is “Ultra Silvam,” which rides a sweet, swinging riff, but just a few, sparing times.
Is The Formulas of Death too long? At seventy-five minutes, yeah, of course it is. But, as I’ve said before, it’s a hell of a lot easier to have sympathy for a band whose album is way too long because it seems like they just had too many cool ideas and couldn’t bear cutting them out than for a band that simply rides the same damn idea into the ground and doesn’t know when to quit. Tellingly, some of the finest moments of The Formulas of Death crop up in the longest songs, when Tribulation really stretches out and gets spooky. The band sometimes even sounds like it’s channeling Iceland’s cowboy metallers Solstafir, and nowhere more eerily than in the early minutes of album standout “Suspiria.” The longest piece is saved for the conclusion, though, and the layers that the band adds subtly throughout the course of “Apparitions” are truly wonderful, with the tremolo riffing gradually undergirded by tinkling piano and gently lilting strings. And oh, what kind of heartless monster doesn’t love a song that goes out with a big clang of the gong?
The change in sound and presentation between The Formulas of Death and its predecessor is drastic; the fact that such a momentous change happened between the first and second albums of Tribulation’s career is, frankly, astonishing. There will certainly be many who choose to side with the Tribulation of 2009, and, honestly, that’s no shabby choice. The Horror is a devilishly good album, and a gaping, toothy grin of an adrenaline shock anytime you find yourself despairing that the world has gone grey and flat. But The Formulas of Death? This album trades in death metal and uses as its medium the very idea of death metal. Maybe it’ll leave some of us behind. It certainly leaves some of itself behind. But the cost, as I reckon it, is worth it. Metamorphoses such as these are rare, and ought to be savored.
Just imagine where they might go next.