Originally written by K. Scott Ross.
Isn’t it strange how sometimes music seems custom made for our tastes, and yet we don’t enjoy it? Such it was with Swedish retro-death turned progressive gothers Tribulation. Their 2009 album The Horror was a well-regarded Swedeath record, but they really shook things up in 2013 with The Formulas of Death, which was critically acclaimed (it took the #9 slot in Last Rites’ 2013 Top 25) and has often been lauded since as a prime example of a band doing something new and exciting with their sound. On paper, it should have been exactly the sort of thing this critic drooled over. But strangely enough, I couldn’t stand the album. The fact that Formulas was so highly spoken of just served to frustrate me. So when I heard that the band had another album out and it was once again being well-received, I rolled my eyes but decided to give it a listen just so I could feel informed when I told people off about it.
It turns out I was wrong. The Children of the Night takes Tribulation’s goth/death rock ideas over the threshold, and I absolutely love it. There’s more Christian Death here than Swedish death. But it would be a mistake to simply slag off the album as “not metal,” because any criteria you use to disqualify it would be just as likely to exclude a crucial part of heavy metal history. Tribulation is basically what would happen if Mikael Åkerfeldt spent his time listening to Joy Division and Christian Death instead of Yes and King Crimson.
The Children of the Night digs deep into the alt-rock subgenres, it’s true, but there’s still a bared claws, gnashing teeth attitude about the music, and not just because Johannes Andersson’s vocals are throat-rendingly aggressive. This isn’t a laid-back jam album, and it’s not a navel-gazing contemplation piece either. The whole band digs into the music with vengeance; listen to “The Motherhood of God” and think about how much less impact it would have if, say, Fields of the Nephilim played it.
It’s fair to say that Children is a long album, clocking in at just under fifty-seven minutes with ten songs, but is it too long? It depends on your tolerance for the slow reveal of meandering musical ideas. But even the seven minute songs like “Winds” and “Music From the Other” feel like complete packages. It never feels like the band is overplaying a given song; perhaps they could have cut the two instrumental songs from the album for the sake of brevity, but “Själaflykt” and “Cauda Pavonis” do good work in advancing the musical themes of the album. So perhaps not.
Real analog guitar tone is one of the highlights of the album. Whether it’s the surf-rock reverbs of “Själaflykt” or the warm overdrives of “Holy Libations,” everything feels fresh and lively. The occasional use of pianos and organs fits the music well, giving certain songs a retro feeling that they otherwise would have lacked. Those elements never feel overused or gimmicky. The production allows everything to breathe nicely. The drums have plenty of space, highlighting Jakob Ljungberg’s cymbal work, while the reverbed vocals fall right behind the instruments in a way that makes them both integral and distinct. Some listeners might feel that perhaps music this bluesy would be better served by a more traditional singer (or replace “bluesy” with “gothic” and “traditional” with “melancholic moaning”), but this critic disagrees. Neither John Arch nor Carl McCoy would improve the album.
I suppose that after my reaction to The Formulas of Death (and the praises sung of it), I can’t exactly expect my words to win anyone over on the band. But try listening to it, regardless of how you feel about the band’s metal credentials or past work. Try the almost-ballad “Strains of Horror,” or the danceable “Melancholia.” Better yet, listen to the whole thing from front to back, and then listen to it again the next day after it’s had a chance to sink in. You’ll not regret spending your time on one of the best albums this year.