When we get band promos, we typically receive a few things. Of course we get the album, but we also get a lot of promotional materials like press releases and photos and the like. I sometimes read the releases and blurbs and think, “Boy, there’s just no way somebody from this band would write this.” The word choice and the phrases marketing people write are patently clear. I even find myself sometimes saying something is “the best” at one thing or another, a habit I’m trying to break. But beyond the cringeworthy superlatives, there are some words and phrases just thrown around as though they have no meaning. Unfortunately, that sometimes paints my perspective on what I’m about to listen to.
With that, let’s talk about Tombs, the Brooklyn-based sludgy post-metal quartet. Earlier this year, the band released the six track EP Monarchy of Shadows, which I thought was pretty good. Readers know my penchant for sludge and probably assumed I was a huge fan. Not only is it that good and brutal sludge, but also because Tombs mixes their sludge with blackened ideas. I’m always supportive of combining musical ideas like this, so Tombs should be right up my alley.
Before I get to the big ol’ but, let me say this: Tombs is really good at combining these ideas in an organic way. Their sound, while not necessarily unique without peer, is definitely an original one. Tombs’ drummer Justin Spaeth is a particularly talented musician. While listening through Under Sullen Skies, I kept thinking, “DAMN, this guy is a hell of a drummer.” There are numerous examples throughout the record of perfectly executed blast beats coming at the exact right time. Consequently, each song gets the feel right, too.
However, now comes the but. I can’t help but think of the marketing materials using the phrase “experimental” over and over again when describing Tombs, and there’s not a single experimental thing about this record. When people use the term “experimental” to describe music, they usually mean that a recording is out of the ordinary and chock full of WTF moments. Throughout Under Sullen Skies, I was waiting for those moments to happen and they simply never do. You don’t want to hold someone else’s words against them, but even the band uses the term to describe themselves. That really hurts the reception of the record.
Not only that, but I didn’t even find the record all that interesting. There’s very little experimentation happening on Under Sullen Skies, but what is happening isn’t even particularly cool or intriguing. While I definitely think Tombs can nail atmosphere through their combination of ideas, there are times where their music is trying to do too many things at once and it falls apart like an unbalanced house of cards. Too many ingredients spoil the broth just like having too many metaphorical cooks.
I also found myself comparing Under Sullen Skies to Metallica’s St. Anger. Producer Bob Rock described St. Anger not as an album but more like a finely produced demo tape of a garage band working out their ideas. I think something similar can be said of Tombs and Under Sullen Skies. These songs don’t go anywhere. It sounds like the band is working their way through some ideas on the fly by just repeating riffs ad nauseum. Every song just meanders its way from an introduction into a conclusion, rarely making much sense. It’s not the kind of listening experience I would recommend to anyone.
While I’m ultimately a bit disappointed by Under Sullen Skies, I don’t think it’s a bad record. I think it’s enjoyable if you’re into the sound, but you likely won’t pick it back up again. The sound overall is good, but a lot of this particular record sounds derivative and uninspired. It’s as if the band decided to make a blackened sludge record without having the passion to actually commit to completely working it out. It just feels like a middling record that marketing people are trying to build up, and that sucks. I hope for more inspiring work from Tombs in the future.
Under Sullen Skies released on November 20th. You can head on over to the band’s Bandcamp page above to grab it.