Tom’s off AOTW duties this week, so I’m here in his stead…
There’s a pretty fascinating debate going on right now about the classification “indie”: what it is or what it isn’t, whether its definition should be expanded or whether the term should be abandoned altogether. And those arguments are relevant at Stereogum because indie is in the site’s DNA, even if those genes are increasingly difficult to identify among the site’s observable characteristics. I’m personally torn about the future of the term: On one hand, it’s convenient shorthand for “sounds like Pavement.” On the other hand, it’s become something of a pejorative modifier: If something is described as “indie hip-hop,” the implication is that it’s not genuine hip-hop. I can’t think of the last time I heard a band self-described as indie. Bands, I think, would prefer to avoid convenient shorthand, and while indie was once a thing to rally around, it is now barely a thing at all.
There’s a similar debate going on — endlessly, tirelessly, mercilessly — about the classification “metal.” Except while mainstream music writers are arguing for the end of indie, metal’s gatekeepers are ever-vigilant about policing and re-enforcing the genre’s borders. The exhaustive and essential resource Metal Archives has a fastidiously detailed set of rules about what may or may not be considered acceptable for submission, and therefore, what is and isn’t metal. They start by saying: “This site will only accept bands that they deem to be ‘metal enough,’ AND you must provide compelling evidence that the band you submit is indeed metal … Disagreements about ‘metalness’ will inevitably occur, but it’s up to the site staff to draw the line.” The following are some of the metal and metal-adjacent subgenres that are immediately disqualified: nu-metal, deathcore, hardcore, grindcore that exhibits “little to zero metal riffs or influence,” alternative/modern hard rock, post-rock, post-punk, and post-hardcore. The list goes on. “[A]s an encyclopedia of heavy metal, this site must draw a line somewhere. If we accepted just about anything, it wouldn’t make sense; we would no longer be a ‘metal’ archive.”
That’s totally fair; it’s their site and I’d be dead without it, so I’m happy to abide by their rules. My point, though, is this: Metal bands must pledge their allegiance or risk excommunication. They’re ghettoized, and frequently penalized when they step outside the lines drawn for them. But those walls keep people out, too. Music fans who are not typically metal fans tend to steer clear of the hard stuff unless it’s been cut with something sweet and/or bubbly. “Indie metal,” if you will. Not genuine metal. And some of that stuff is really good, too! Of course, some of it is really boring, and some of it is really bad. On the other side of that fence, though, is a whole world of shit that is great. Not a week goes by here without someone in the comments lamenting the dearth and deficiency of guitars in modern music, and all I can think, every time, is: There are so many goddamn guitars, and so many people doing such amazing things with the instrument. And if you want evidence of that, start right here.
Tribulation are a Swedish band, and The Children Of The Night is their third studio full-length. I already wrote a lot about the band’s backstory and their evolution, and you can find that here. In that same space, I said that The Children Of The Night was an early frontrunner for my Album Of The Year pick. I wrote those words in February — a few weeks after getting my hands on an advance of the record — and here we are in April, the album is finally available to everyone, and my feelings haven’t changed. The Children Of The Night is still the best record I’ve heard in 2015. It might be the best record I’ve heard in the past two years. It’s an actual masterpiece; the type of thing that will stick around for the next few decades. And even though it’s 100% genuine-article capital-M Metal, it doesn’t follow any rules or bow to any masters. There are generous influences from numerous genres deemed unacceptable by Metal Archives — namely classic rock, progressive rock, psychedelic rock, occult rock, hard rock, and gothic rock — but it would be impossible to mistake this for anything other than The Real Thing.
That’s gonna be a deterrent to some listeners. The primary sticking point will be bassist/frontman Johannes Andersson’s vocals, which are delivered in a high growl similar to that of countrymen Erik Danielsson of Watain and the late Jon Nödtveidt of Dissection. That style is unusually raspy and dry, almost flat, which stands in stark contrast to the lush sonic palette behind Andersson. I’ll confess: On first listen, those vocals were a sticking point for me, and I’m pretty accustomed to this stuff. I imagined this music with a more dynamic singer, and I was frustrated by what felt like a lost opportunity. But I came back to the album — because I needed to hear those guitars again — and I pretty quickly came around. Andersson’s vocals are the only consistently metal sounds on The Children Of The Night, and he employs them deftly; he’s working in an extremely limited range, and he uses that range to maximum effect, slightly shifting his cadence and tone to drive the music, almost as if he were playing a rhythm instrument.
Everything around him, then, explodes with melody. Most prominent are the twin guitars of Adam Zaars and Jonathan Hultén, whose playing invokes Pink Floyd as much as it does At The Gates. They shift from aqueous psychedelia to anthemic metal, sometimes layering those two sounds, often adding additional layers, too. An obvious reference point is another Swedish band, Opeth — especially recent Opeth records, on which the band are channeling prog weirdos like Goblin or Mahavishnu Orchestra — but unlike Opeth, Tribulation fucking rip. They get into some death ‘n’ roll grooves here that will get you strutting, maybe sprinting. A less-obvious reference point is Agalloch’s Don Anderson, whose spidery guitar lines and skying leads seem to have influenced those of Zaars and Hultén. These things drive the songs, giving them texture and momentum and lift.
The other instruments that jump out at you are the organs and synths, which are everywhere here, adding John Carpenter-esque ambiance. Those same tools are employed by Tribulation’s countrymen and colleagues Ghost B.C. to a cartoonish retro effect. Tribulation, though, treat them with deadly seriousness: They’re here to evoke awe and majesty; they’re here to elevate the music, not soften it. Finally — and most undeniably — are the drums, courtesy of Jakob Ljungberg, who is openly inspired by John Bonham (his mustache is a dead giveaway, if you couldn’t tell by his galloping, thunderous wallop), and who is delivering performances at a Bonzo-esque level.
Tribulation came into this world as a death metal band, but that distinction seems woefully lacking at this point: There’s more Iron Maiden here than Cannibal Corpse; more Deep Purple than Morbid Angel. The Children Of The Night opens on a ridiculous high: “Strange Gateways Beckon,” which captures pretty much everything I’ve described above by the time it hits its first chorus. But the album only builds from there. “Melancholia” is a raucous stomper that recalls the occult death ‘n’ roll of Arizona’s Take Over And Destroy; first single “In The Dreams Of The Dead” surges, vaults, and pirouettes a little bit like classic San Francisco prog-thrash band Death Angel (and features what is perhaps Ljungberg’s most viscerally intense performance); “Winds” slowly builds a tower of guitars and drums, and then shifts, almost imperceptibly, and you find yourself floating on a cloud of synths, Andersson’s howl more expansive here than at any other point on the album.
After that, things get really good. Tracks 5 and 9 (“Sja?laflykt” and “Cauda Pavonis,” respectively) are instrumentals — both are gorgeous and detailed in their own right — that bookend the album’s centerpiece triad: “The Motherhood Of God,” “Strains Of Horror,” and “Holy Libations.” The last of those three songs is clearly the album’s apex; its central riff is the best I’ve heard this year. But “Strains Of Horror” may be the single most devastating track, or at least the track containing the single most devastating segment: It comes in at 2:50, when everything drops out except the organ, and that leads into the guitar solo. That guitar solo. That run. Jesus. That’s where all your guitars went. Tribulation took them all, and here they are.
There’s a deluxe edition of The Children Of The Night that features a bonus track: a cover of the Cure’s “One Hundred Years.” It’s an inclusion that should give you some idea where Tribulation are coming from, as well as what they think of the rules they’re encouraged to follow by the metal police. But that doesn’t change what Tribulation are. When I listen to The Children Of The Night, the album I’m most often reminded of is Metallica’s 1986 monument Master Of Puppets. That’s partly because of the album’s construction and arc, its ambitions, its melodies, and its force. Like Master, The Children Of The Night feels like the product of a confident band in complete control of its estimable powers.
But there’s something else, too: In ’86, Metallica were covering songs by the Misfits and Killing Joke, because they didn’t have guidelines or boundaries; they merely had influences and a vision for what music could be … and then they made that music. That was a time before genre segregation, when everyone listened to metal — alongside everything else — because metal hadn’t been compartmentalized or walled-off. Metallica weren’t the best metal band in the world, they were the best band in the world, period. I don’t know if Tribulation are the best band in the world, but The Children Of The Night is the best album I’ve heard in a long time. And you can choose to stay outside, but this one is inviting you in, and showing you something you won’t see anywhere else, something you might not see ever again.
The Children Of The Night is technically out 4/21 via Century Media, but pre-orders are already shipping now so close enough.
Other albums of note out today:
- Tyler, The Creator’s overstuffed and exhausting surprise release Cherry Bomb.
- English hard core band Gallows’ Desolation Sounds.
- Calexico’s guest-heavy, Mexico City-inspired Edge Of The Sun.
- Liverpool indie rock trio the Wombats’ Glitterbug.
- Villagers’ third swing for the Mercury Prize, Darling Arithmetic.
- DIY Brooklyn art-rockers Ava Luna’s Infinite House.
- Three EPs, 2012-2014, a collection of Danish producer and singer Anders Rhedin’s work to date as Dinner.
- New Pornographer Kathryn Calder’s self-titled third solo LP.
- Suuns and Radwan Ghazi Moumneh’s marriage of electro and Arabic influences, Suuns & Jerusalem In My Heart.
- Portland songwriter Alexei Shishkin’s tormented, lo-fi The Dog Tape.
- Quilt drummer John Andrews’ jangly and psychedelic debut with the Yawns’ Bit By The Fang.
- Ex-marine Jacob Dillan Summers’ groovy debut as Avid Dancer, 1st Bath.
- One-time country hitmaker Dwight Yoakam’s back-to-basics barnburner Second Hand Heart.
- Cat Martino and Sven Britt’s full-length team up as Stranger Cat, In The Wilderness.
- Swedish post-punk trio Hey Elbow’s Every Other.