Reviewing music adds a unique element to retrospection. While everyone reflects on their past opinions, revisiting a detailed analysis of an album frames that type of reflection in a much more formal way. It’s the difference between a casual remembrance of past feelings and revisiting several paragraphs of your opinion written after multiple listens to the album in question. Of course, what makes this interesting is the possibility that your current opinion of the band might reaffirm or contrast how you once felt. It’s interesting to have felt so strongly in one direction only to find yourself disagreeing with your own fervent beliefs years down the road.
And yet, there are times when your first review of a band can essentially be repackaged in perpetuity, as they never present anything to contradict your initial triage of their sound. Unfortunately, such is the case with my relationship with Tombs. Listening to Monarchy of Shadows for this piece prompted me to look back at my review of Savage Gold (2014) on Sputnikmusic (written before I joined Heavy Blog). Sure enough, the key points I covered six years ago remain true with the Brooklyn “blackened” metal veterans. In short, Tombs continue to produce polished modern metal with broad appeal but limited lasting impact.
The self-proclaimed “experimental metal” band describe their sound as a blend of “bleak, post-punk minimalism with the ferocious attack of sludge and traditional black metal.” Of all the Tombs releases I’ve heard, that final genre descriptor feels most accurate. There are elements of sludge throughout their discography, to be fair, and perhaps that bleakness can be identified if you use a broad definition of post-punk (and post-metal, a tag I’ve also seen attached to their sound).
But at the end of the day, Tombs play a distinctly modern version of the tried-and-true black metal formula. Nothing flashy; just straightforward, uptempo black metal for fans of the genre’s modern sound. Essentially, the band’s discography (and Monarchy of Shadows in particular) sounds like a more structured version of Mayhem‘s output post Grand Declaration of War. The band’s quasi-operatic clean vocals even sound like a much tamer Attila Csihar.
There’s nothing wrong with traditional black metal, of course; Jonathan and I write about it regularly for Kvlt Kolvmn. However, the band’s songwriting does little more than touch on highlights from the black metal playbook. If you’ve followed the genre over the last several years, then Monarchy of Shadows will present nothing you haven’t heard before. Additionally, the release maintains my most notable grievance with Tombs, being the band’s consistently clean production. This overly polished sound hinders the blackened bite the band tries to unleash. The atmospheric blackened passages don’t feel particularly raw, emotive, or menacing, and the heavier metallic moments aren’t as punishing as they could be.
These factors combine to offer a diminished impact on first listen and lacking memorability after the fact. Peeling back the curtain for a moment, Monarchy of Shadows required more pre-review listens than most albums I write about, because I simply had trouble picking out noteworthy moments to highlight. Sure, the light use of strings on “The Dark Rift” added some intrigue, though the production on the promo copy I received caused them to feel buried in the mix. While I’m mentioning additional instrumentation, I’ll note that the synths on the title track struggled with a similar lack of prominence.
Otherwise, “Once Falls the Guillotine” is really the only track that left a major impression. A syncopated riff, cymbals, and kick pedal groove under a frantic tremolo erupts into a blast-heavy speed rush, with the core melody defining a series of tempo shifts throughout the track. The track loses a bit of steam at the midpoint, which is unfortunately a pervasive issue on Monarchy of Shadows. Still, there are short bursts of excitement like this on each track which should keep listeners engaged enough to finish out the track list. The question then becomes how enticed they are to revisit what they just heard.
Even considering the brevity of the release, it’s unfortunate there isn’t much to say about Monarchy of Shadows. Those drawn to no-frills, contemporary black metal might find some value in what Tombs present on their latest outing. But for a band this seasoned and celebrated, it’s difficult not to feel a bit underwhelmed by such a cleanly produced and compositionally safe collection of songs. Certainly, not every release needs to push the boundaries of the genre and unfurl some grand musical or lyrical concept. But it should at least offer music worth revisiting, a bar Tombs have once again fallen short of clearing.
Monarchy of Shadows is available Feb. 28 via Season of Mist.