[25 February 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Although he made a name for himself with much-loved Boston (and later New York based) hardcore band Anodyne and subsequent project Versoma, guitarist/vocalist Mike Hill finds himself the subject of more attention than usual these days, as in barely over a year his new band Tombs has emerged from relative obscurity to being behind one of the most talked-about albums of early 2009.
Part of this is due to the fact that the ever-fickle indie scenesters in Brooklyn have suddenly attached themselves to the trio, precipitating a groundswell of hype on blogs and webzines in anticipation of the release of the band’s second album, their first for venerable imprint Relapse. And the frustrating thing for followers of metal music isn’t the fact that a bunch of outsiders are suddenly declaring Tombs to be the next big thing in extreme music (like they’d ever know, some might think), but that their claims just might turn out to be warranted. Credibility was never a question when it comes to this band (Hill’s metal/hardcore pedigree speaks for itself), they’re on one of the most reputable metal labels in America, and most importantly, their new record Winter Hours absolutely crushes.
Released on Hill’s own Black Box Recordings imprint in late 2007, Tombs’ eponymous debut wasted no time in treading the same paths as post-metal pioneers Neurosis and shoegaze devotees Jesu, but although the seven-track CD wasn’t without its inspired moments, it still felt like a work in progress, melodies often sounding awkwardly developed, the raw production lacking the towering, epic mix that the style benefits so greatly from. On Winter Hours, all doubts are cast aside, as mournful melodies are slyly buried underneath a thick morass of sludgy riffs and primal drum beats, the expansive yet punishing mix by Ian Whalen allowing for subtle harmonic touches that reveal themselves upon repeated listens. Most importantly, however, is that the ten songs sound fully fleshed out, the musical shifts as graceful as the maniacal drumming of Justin Ennis is unrelenting.
That said, the band comes perilously close to blowing its load early, as the brilliant opening track “Gossamer” easily tops anything Tombs has recorded to date. It’s a perfect example of Tombs’ deceptively simple formula, as Hill lets loose a massive, bent-string doom riff reminiscent of Godflesh with Ennis providing thunderous beats and Carson Daniel James thrumming away on bass, waves of feedback subtly audible deep in the mix, before Hill’s straightforward, Fear Factory-like vocal melody takes over. Normally, most “metalgaze” bands would tend to drag a song out as long as they could manage, but what quickly becomes apparent is Tombs’ sense of economy: the pace may be deliberate, but songs never meander. At five and a half minutes, “Gossamer” is the longest song on the entire album, Hill and his bandmates wasting no time switching from section to section, and to hear such musical shifts executed so swiftly is especially refreshing in a genre that tends to drag things well past the one hour mark.
Although the rest of the album doesn’t measure up to the masterful opener, the songs do hold their own by throwing a spanner or two into the works. In direct contradiction of the much more slowly paced 2007 album, the band shifts gears on a number of occasions, with a strong black metal influence starting to creep in, Ennis’s furious blastbeats and Hill’s tremolo picking nicely counterbalancing the slower, Neurosis-like sections on such tracks as “Beneath the Toxic Jungle”, “Filled with Secrets”, and “Golden Eyes”. “The Divide”‘s mournful melodies are offset by Ennis’s tom-tom workout, while the rampaging “The Great Silencer” is a hesher-pleaser in the vein of High on Fire. Touches of Ride and My Bloody Valentine tinge the opening salvos and climactic coda of “Merrimack”, book-ending Hill’s anguished verses (“Walls of ice / The dark embrace / I can feel the days / Slip away”). With “Seven Stars the Angel of Death” faithfully plundering the catalog of Justin Broadrick (the raw power of Godflesh, the layered beauty of Jesu) at the close of the album, Winter Hours shows just how quickly Tombs has developed in such a short time. As good as this album is, though, it’s a safe bet that Hill and his band are only just getting started.