Tombs—Path of Totality

avant-garde Aug 23, 2011

Waves of corpulent riffs, understated gothic splendor and a fair amount of post-metal escapism greets you on Path of Totality, the sophomore album from New York trio Tombs. It’s a sagacious, intricate release—Tombs have taken those disparate elements and influences that defined their debut, Winter Hours, honed their already imposing songwriting prowess, and released an album that is intensely corrosive, yet has a tantalizingly delicate heart.

Tombs were lauded on debut for their blend of urbanized black metal, Neurosis/Mastodon sludgy progressiveness and a tonal slant reminiscent of avant-garde noise terrorists such as Swans. While Tombs aren’t alone in exploring themes of personal isolation—that’s big business in the metal world, obviously—they’re one of a few bands that have managed to examine the disintegration of the self in the face of modernity by taking just the right amount of inspiration from black and extreme metal, without resorting to overloading the senses with too much unnecessary fury. Tombs are smarter than that, they take what they need and leave the rest behind, and they’re no slaves to regimented ideas about how one can express oneself through the medium of metal.

Path of Totality is an album of many faces. It is excruciatingly heavy, built upon strata of hemorrhaging riffs that extend progressively or condense in furious blasts. But it is also subtle, with multifaceted elements that guide you through gloomy introspective moments to majestic empowering crescendos. On any other album that mix of stylistic changes might be jarring. But that’s not the case here, and the production work of John Congleton has to be singled out as one of the prime reasons the album hangs together so well.

For an album this nuanced, clarity is imperative. Congleton manages to create space for each instrument, guitarist/vocalist Mike Hill has plenty of room to throw out gorgeous riffs (his guitar tone is insane!) and his mournful vocals have some distance when needed (they’re not always at the front, which works well). Bassist Carson James has a prime position, as a throbbing underscoring of post-punk runs throughout, and drummer Andrew Hernandez has a hectic role, grasping beats from all over the spectrum. All have been recorded perfectly.

Of course it’s the songs themselves that matter, and Tombs have outdone themselves this time. This is a heartbreakingly intense album, from the bedlam of the opener, “Black Hole Summer”, with its placid ending bleeding into the bass throb intro of “To Cross the Land”, from the abundantly clear UK 80s post-punk vibe of “Silent World” and “Passageways”**to the muscular, bullying shove of “Vermillion” and “Bloodletters”. There’s plenty of variety, an abundance of tempo changes and enough adventurous explorations to ensure that although things shift around a lot they always remain profound, desolate and extremely heavy.

Clearly, Tombs aren’t the first band to explore the ugliness of society, but not many others are doing it with this level of dexterity. Path of Totality is an enigmatic, seductive album and in its depth there’s a stark beacon of solemnity that speaks to anyone bewildered by the emotional turmoil churned up by the uncaring forces of modernity. And while that might sound bleak, there’s also a very pure beauty to this album. Its abject harshness offers up the kind of hope that only the best metal can—a momentary release from a life that seeks to hold you down, and an emotive pulse that is both liberating and, ultimately, healing.


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