Of the comments on our post outlining Music Journalism’s Top 25 Metal Albums of 2017, one in particular provided an opinion that’s plagued the metal community for quite some time. The commenter criticized Heavy Blog for being too focused on “wanting to like what’s different as oppose to just listening to an album for what it is.” It’s certainly correct to assert that experimentation in and of itself isn’t a virtue when it comes to a band’s music, particularly when their overall songwriting fails basic criteria for quality. However, as you can see from our own Top 25 Albums of 2017, as well as the bands we post about throughout each year, we genuinely endorse the compositional chops of the experimental bands we cover, and furthermore, we cover plenty of bands who we believe excel at maintaining their respective genre(s) with fresh takes on established formulas. More importantly, however, is the issue with the second part of the comment. It’s simply impossible to listen to an album for what it is; no album is released in a vacuum, and even if a listener doesn’t keep up on the current music landscape, they’re still going to involuntarily compare an album to comparable music they’ve heard in the past.
Such is the case with Tribulation, a Swedish quartet who have run the gamut of musical styles over the past several years. The band was launched into the spotlight in 2015 The Children Of The Night, which ranked second behind Deafheaven‘s New Bermuda as the metal establishment’s Top 50 Metal Albums of the Year. As we mentioned in our own review of the album, the band truly did release a praiseworthy album; their blend of a traditional metal core with Gothic, occult and prog rock tendencies along with black metal aesthetics produced an interesting musical palette that stood out from the trend of heavy metal revivalism. Considering the metal establishment’s obsession with bands like Ghost and In Solitude, it made perfect sense that they’d latch onto Tribulation’s music—it’s both in line and out of step with this revivalist niche, creating the perfect standout album to fawn over.
Unlike some of the other bands universally praised by the metal establishment, Tribulation is a somewhat difficult beast to tackle, which continues to be the case on Down Below. We’ve criticized the metal establishment for giving certain bands unsubstantiated praise for being “innovative,” but Tribulation truly have presented something unique and special. We’ve criticized the metal establishment for overstating the quality of some bands, but both The Children of the Night and Down Below are genuinely good albums. In all honesty, Down Below floats by most of our contextual tests; it’s a genuinely solid album that presents a myriad of enjoyable elements. The issue lies not with whether or not the album is good, but rather, just how good it actually is. While we’ll have to wait and see if Down Below receives just as much praise from the metal establishment as its predecessor did, the album sees Tribulation tweaking the formula that drew so much praise, which both improves the alluring elements of their sound and illuminates how middling the effect of their style ultimately ends up being. In short, Down Below establishes squarely as a “good” album, and never strays much higher or lower than that line. Compared to past and current iterations of the styles they synthesize, it becomes clear Tribulation are a competent group that are still a few shades away from true greatness.
This isn’t meant to discredit the fact that Down Below is a genuinely good album, and one with numerous noteworthy moments. “Nightbound” toys with the moody stylings and riffs of The Cure and Christian Death, revolving around a catchy traditional metal riff and building toward a soaring, dual-guitar melody. The track also includes one of numerous psychedelic guitar solos on the album, easily one of the strongest aspects of Tribulation’s sound. On “Lady Death,” the band’s sonic similarities to Kvelertak (without the punk) and Hail Spirit Noir (without the avant-garde) become most evident, and yet again the band reaches a sweeping, melodic climax that capitalizes on the catchiest aspects of 80s metal guitar. Hues of the 80s are present throughout the album, ranging from the brash heavy metal bravado of aggressive, big riffs on “Subterranea” and spacy synths in the midsection of “Lacrimosa.” By far the best iteration of this 80s aesthetic, and easily the strongest track on the album, arrives with the incredibly well composed “The World.” Swirls of occult-tinged melodic riffing, organ and background choral vocals make for a sinister yet beautiful affair, as if Tears for Fears tapped into the early black metal scene. The track is arguably the most unique in the band’s discography, and it would be interesting to hear what else the band could do with a focus on this approach.
Unfortunately, Down Below sees Tribulation continuing to brush up against a similar barrier present on The Children of the Night. Though best encapsulated by tracks like “The Lament,” “Cries from the Underworld” and “Here Be Dragons,” the majority of the album rests in a pocket of relative comfort for the band, working from the aforementioned formula of synthesized genres. Yet, while Tribulation’s combination of styles is unique, their execution rarely rises above a level beyond “enjoyable.” This isn’t a bad problem to have, of course, and anyone who enjoys the genres Tribulation touch upon will find this a worthwhile album to visit this year. But by the time “Here Be Dragons” concludes the album, it’s difficult to think back and remember many any extraordinary highlights save for “Nightbound” and “The World.” This is exacerbated by the pacing of almost every track on the album. Though the tempo is mid-paced throughout, several of the individual passages throughout the album feel sluggish and elongated. As a result, several tracks feel like a collection of good-but-no-great ideas that are often stretched too thin.
Again, it’s a bit difficult to critique Down Below, as these points don’t fully discredit the quality of the album. Tribulation have a distinct approach to leveraging the strengths of genre standards and delivering them through a new, fresh perspective. The attention they’ve received is well-deserved, and it’s refreshing to see the metal establishment actually converge around an album that genuinely feels worthy of praise. At the same time, there is an element of “wanting to like what’s different” surrounding Tribulation, in that the praise their receiving seems to be more geared toward their uniqueness while overlooking the fact their songwriting often dips a bit below the quality of their concept. The band have a solid foundation to work from and two good albums that prove they’re capable of accomplishing something truly exceptional in the future; “The World” alone points toward a potentially bright path forward into a more lush, melodic and orchestrated direction. Unfortunately, as it stands now with The Children of the Night and Down Below, there’s just not enough here to warrant placing Tribulation at the top of the pack in a modern metal landscape where innovation, stellar songwriting and a combination of the two is around every corner.
Down Below is available January 26 via Century Media Records and can be purchased via Kings Road Merch.