No one could have predicted where the career of UK mathcore quintet Rolo Tomassi would lead when their debut album, Hysterics, dropped in 2008. The record consisted of jumbles of frantic atonal riffing and jarring, genre-bending interludes, backed by piercing screeches and raucous synths. There was no denying the band had a bold energy, but it seemed like they would ultimately lack staying power. How wrong we were. Since their wild beginnings, Tomassi has ceaselessly reinvented and innovated their core sound with each new release, ruthlessly tearing apart their foundations and rebuilding with a fervor that few bands can lay comparable claim to. Now 13 years into their career, the band have been on a continuous upward trajectory that shows no signs of slowing with album number five, Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It. In fact, if anything this album represents not just another point in the upward swing of a band on the rise, but a monumental leap into newfound heights of compositional maturity, and is undoubtedly the sound of a group at the pinnacle of their career.
Rolo Tomassi’s previous album, Grievances, represented possibly the most marked change in the direction of the band’s sound to date, as it veered away from the messy, eccentric approach of their first three records in favor of much darker, somber territory. The aggression, atonality, and mathy heart was still there, but compositionally the record felt more fluid and reflective, and atmospheric passages were allowed space to breathe and build. Even the shrill and often extra-terrestrial sounds of the band’s trademark synths made way for pensive pianos and string accompaniments.
In keeping with the band’s penchant for innovation, TWDLWBI builds on the foundations of its predecessor but relentlessly reinvents and reframes. When considered in the context of what came before, the title of album-opener “Towards Dawn” makes unquestionably clear the sonic direction of the new album. This intimation is confirmed by the shimmering, celestial atmospherics that comprises the meditative intro, which feels almost cleansing, as if washing away the darkness and vitriol of the previous project.
The themes of illumination resurface in “A Flood of Light”, but that’s not to say this album is without darkness. “Rituals” and “Whispers Among Us”, for instance, are Rolo Tomassi at the bleakest and most foreboding they have ever been. These tracks enhance their atmosphere by borrowing influences from the darker corners of metal, utilizing blackened blastbeats, hardcore-style builds, and vocals that swing from ear-splitting shrieks to abrasive retches and hoarse roars. The addition of melancholy piano lines and choir voicings elsewhere on the record only adds to this desolate quality. “Balancing the Dark”, then, is probably the title that best indicates what the band is trying to achieve with this record.
Working in so much atmosphere on TWDLWBI has meant that, to a large extent, the band has foregone crazy riffs and jarring genre-hopping in favor of songs that swell and flow with tension and emotion. A good dose of post-rock influences has now infiltrated Tomassi’s sound, with intense crescendos and reverb-laden guitars humming in the background of many of the album’s most powerful moments. In fact, the new record leans so heavily in favor of atmospheric builds and clear, simple motifs that it seems a stretch to call it mathcore at all any more. However, there’s still plenty for numberphiles to sink their teeth into here, with off-kilter time signatures and atonal note-jumbles abounding on some songs. But even on tracks that make extended use of odd timings, these parts are always blended discreetly into the tone of the track, and subtly support its ideas. This is in contrast to earlier albums, where Tomassi would often jarringly break out into awkward time signatures just to show off their technical chops and mathy influences.
Nevertheless, there are still many moments of good old-fashioned number-crunching on TWDLWBI. The first half of “Alma Mater”, for instance, sounds like the sonic recreation of an exploding abacus and opens with a bout of rapid-fire, stuttering, dissonant chords and atonal riffing as the band openly flaunt their Dillinger Escape Plan influences. Similarly, the lopsided synth-lines in “Balancing the Dark” sound like the forlorn wail of a thousand dying calculators, and riffs towards the start of “Whispers Among Us” also make for some head-spinning long-division.
Exceptional as the instrumentals on this album are, it’s really the astonishing power and versatility of Eva Spence’s vocals that steal the show. Passages like the call and response voicings near the beginning of “A Flood of Light” are a microcosm of the range exhibited across the record, and showcases how effortlessly Eva can flit between sandpaper rasp and floating, ethereal cleans. Plus, as on past releases, her vocals are often backed by keyboardist and sibling James Spence. This dual vocal approach makes for some powerful moments, like the high-energy clamor at the climax of “Alma Mater”, or the gentle chant towards the end of “Whispers Among Us”.
Rolo Tomassi has truly outdone themselves on TWDLWBI, and have shown a staggering level of maturation in the three years since their last release. This record feels expansive and epic yet also aggressive and deeply personal. It balances the light and the dark; the serene and the chaotic, and shows a blithe disregard for any expectations surrounding the band’s sound. Rolo Tomassi continues to lead the way in fearless innovation and their latest offering promises to solidify their status among the greats of their genre.