Tombs’ last album ‘Winter Hours’ ended up in many of the end of year polls for its bleak soundscape and hostile approach. Whilst they’re another band to emerge to be loosely labelled post-metal they have proven to be a darker and more disturbing entity altogether and new album ‘Paths Of Totality’ is a being unto the philosphy. Calum Robson had a chat to mainman Mike Hill and discussed life, death and existential philosophy.
If you’re ready to listen to Tombs then you’ve acknowledged that toe-dipping is prohibited. You’re not seeking a disposable, inoffensive easy-listen band and are prepared to bask in a murky sea of fear, dread and contemplation. Once this realisation passes and the initiation is over, you’ll be sucked under into a viscous force of sludge, weighed down by a burdensome claustrophobia of naked, wild thought and left with a feeling you’ve just travelled into personal oblivion.
For a band that released their first full-length record in just 2009, Tombs sport a deceivingly mature sound and equally bemusing songwriting strength. Winter Hours was the respectable debut that marked out skeletal ambitions that many found hard to fathom. But those partly estranged by the record would soon learn that their strange curiosity was in fact an astute awareness of an intimidating, enveloping presence beckoning.
Three albums in three-years, it’s almost certainly third time lucky for the US band – with new LP Path Of Totality more than just a mildly impressive piece of work. To get where they are mentally and musically, the history of the trio is crucial if one is to understand just how they came to craft their own identity and path to success.
Guitarist and vocalist Mike Hill founded Tombs but it was previous band Versoma that laid the very groundwork for Tombs – the initial thesis that would gradually depart from their former sound – being morphed and doctored extremely to spawn something entirely different. Tombs might have risen from the ashes of the defunct project, but instead of adjusting the angle ever so slightly, the musical remains were instantly put back into a furnace of experimentalism, incinerated through the trial of a newly formed entity, to be re-gathered into a darker force.
“Tombs started immediately after my former band, Versoma, broke up,” Hill said. “It was only a matter of days before I was back in the rehearsal space working on material that would become the first Tombs EP. At that point, I was using bits and pieces of songs I had originally intended for Versoma, which had a way more melodic, more “ephemeral” vibe. After rehearsing it with the lineup I had back then, the material had a way more metal sound to it. I just sort of continued to refine that approach.”
The rapid ascent that saw Hill dabble more in ‘metal’ music was without conscious intention. Tombs seem to have stumbled across it almost by chance, using the abrasive style as a medium for channelling their apocalyptic energy. But it’s with this isolation that the Brooklyn based act have an untainted truth – a view that succumbs them to no particular movement nor subscribes to any concentrated ideology, with Hill stating “I don’t feel 100% part of any scene. I like touring with friends, but often times we aren’t the most logical touring companions.” Undeniably the three-piece dabble in a blackened style, but don’t feel at home being pushed under a certain category or classification. They could never truly be a part of a specific scene, and this open mentality serves them well musically. Despite this, Hill can appreciate such scenes from past and present, particularly when it comes to one of the most notorious yet productive scenes in recent years – black metal.
“I feel like Black Metal is similar to Punk and Hardcore – two genres that had very specific meanings back at their inception but splintered off and evolved, in some cases devolved,” he explained. “The Norwegian Black Metal scene was specific to the locale and a certain era. Similar to punk, it was a reaction to their environment, and the stifling, Christian vibe in their country. It was a decidedly more misanthropic scene; you couldn’t just join, there was a certain ideology concerning Paganism and rejection of Christian ideas that were requirements.”
In hindsight, Hill appreciates the impact of the scene in its tenure but openly admits that he doesn’t feel any loyalty to the values of these so-called requirements. Aside from the raw musical edge of black metal that Tombs have respectfully borrowed, it is the aesthetics of the movement that the band could never be one with.
“I find the Satanic undertones in more modern Black Metal to be interesting in that to acknowledge Satan, you have to acknowledge the existence of the Judeo-Christian idea of God and Christ. It’s interesting, but I don’t subscribe to any kind of religion or concept of a higher power. I think that man needs to project an explanation for his fear of death so he creates some kind of religion to explain this and assuage his fears, be it some form of Judeo-Christianity or some kind of Satanic Devil-Kult. To me Black Metal is a style music that has a dark ideology associated with it. To me, none of that stuff is relevant because I don’t believe in God, Satan or any kind of higher power.”
Interestingly, his staunch explanations may make him feel philosophically distanced from the core ideals of the scene somewhat. What is surprising is the fact that in his rejection of the divine – whether Satanic or Christian – Hill withholds his own theory on the concept of heaven, something he explores on new album Path Of Totality, exclusively in the song Black Heaven.
“I’m an atheist, a kind of cash-and-carry sort of guy,” he affirmed. “Black Heaven relates to the world that will rise after Humanity falls. I believe that the universe is constantly seeking equilibrium, like all physical systems. Ultimately, the universe will eliminate Humanity unless there is some kind of drastic change. To me equilibrium is heaven.”
It’s by no means a spiritual confession but the nearest Hill will ever be to saying one. His belief is rooted in an empirical balancing act, the idea that the universe’s balance will provide this more physical, literal heaven, but attached to it is the hinted irony that equilibrium will reign supreme only when mortal shackles are cast aside and humanity perishes.
This is just a bite-size example of Path Of Totality’s ambition. They don’t reach out for the grandeur, but still grip the listener by the power of their dark analysis. The end of mankind re-surfaces as a morbid theme throughout, with tracks comprised of harsh imagery and cold lyrics. Tombs deal with such heavy tones in the full knowledge that they won’t haphazardly compromise.
“The most interesting thing about the “End Times” is that an apocalypse is only an end for Humanity,” Hill contemplated. “There will be something that comes next, as there was something that came before us. The universe just keeps rolling with or without us.”
His lyrics sink deeper and deeper into grim territory – tapping into man’s reasoning for having any motives at all in life – an impulsive desire to dissect human values and deliberate whatever fuelled their conception in the first place.
“Like most humans, I’m fascinated by what lies beyond this mortal coil. It’s that fear that drives everything in this life. Man wants his DNA to survive, wants to leave some kind of legacy for the future. This fear also drives Man’s need to explain his world, to reduce everything to abstraction and develop symbols, religions, etc. That’s the real impetus for my lyrics.”
As you can expect from Tombs, heavy matter is delivered with an equally heavy sound. But as discussed before – there’s no use pigeon-holing them. Path Of Totality will lull you into a hypnotic trance, sometimes mentally draining yet psychologically enlightening. This whirling and overbearing black sludge isn’t easy listening for even the most cultivated of post-metal fans. It has its moments of blackened riffing alongside frantic blastbeat, but ultimately refuses to lie to categorisation, with nimble, gloomy post-punk influence and an underlying bow to Joy Division, as Hill confirms.
“Joy Division is one of my favourite bands so that is definitely an influence,” he said. “Joy Division’s music is timeless. I also like New Order, but there isn’t the same emotional intensity without Ian Curtis. Other inspiration comes from bands like Black Flag, Morbid Angel, Emperor, Darkthrone, My Bloody Valentine, Swans, Neurosis, Blut Aus Nord, Leviathan / Lurker of Chalice, Bauhaus, Fields of the Nephilim, Sisters of Mercy.”
It’s a healthy mixture indeed. But just when Soundshock are done expecting the unexpected, Hill reveals just where he gathered the inspiration for album title Path Of Totality.
“The Path of Totality is the shadow cast by the moon on the earth during an eclipse,” he said. “A couple of years ago, when we were out supporting Winter Hours, I read a novel called “The Strain” a vampire novel by Chuck Hogan and Guillermo Del Torro and one of the plot elements involved an occultation. The description of it was really intense and I meditated on how terrifying witnessing something like that must be. I did a lot of reading on it and became more and more fascinated by the instinctual, primal reaction humans had to it. It’s as if it’s coded in our DNA. That concept of primal, instinctual fear resonated with me and you can see reverberations in that on the record.”
From putting pen to paper and bringing mind-stimulating ideas to life to its release last month, the process of the new album is complete and with it – a barrage of critical acclaim has erupted.
“Definitely,” Hill responded when asked about whether he was pleased with Path Of Totality’s reception. “I’m always happy when people react favourably to our music. As time goes on, a label get involved, you end up doing a lot of touring – it’s difficult to not have any expectations. Deep down you want people to dig what you do because of all of the work that goes into putting together a full-length LP.”
Hill’s efforts are certainly not futile.
Interview written and conducted by Calum Robson for Soundshock.com.
‘Path Of Totality’ is out now on Relapse.
Tombs have announced four UK dates in August as part of their European tour supporting The Secret. The dates are as follows:
5th August – London, The Borderline
6th August – Belfast, Auntie Annies/Acoustic Room
10th August – Southampton, Joiners
11th August – Margate, The Westcoast Bar