About two years ago, in the midst of one of those magical New York nights where you end up in places you never would’ve thought to expect, I got incredibly drunk and followed a few friends to St. Vitus, where the Swedish metal band Tribulation were playing a one-off show on a night off from their tour with Deafheaven and Envy. Which is to say: I got lucky. St. Vitus isn’t a big room, and it wasn’t full. But in Tribulation, I got to see a band that really belongs in arenas. That’s something I thought over and over while watching them play and doing my very best to not topple over sideways: They belong in much, much bigger rooms. Part of that was their makeup, an exact midpoint between standard-issue black metal corpsepaint and the glammed-out kabuki designs that Mötley Crüe used to rock in the Shout At The Devil era. Part of it was the way they moved — all big gestures and theatrically well-timed hair-flips, as if they were oblivious to the fact that they were playing a bar scarcely bigger than my living room. But most of it was their music, a grand and crashing storm of melody and roar. That night, they sounded huge. Today, they sound even huger.
That night in New York, Tribulation were touring behind their 2015 breakout album The Children Of The Night. Though Tribulation started out as, more or less, a straight-up death metal band, The Children Of The Night found them pulling from goth and prog and horror-movie soundtracks and classic Camaro metal, turning their sound into something vast and cinematic. With the band’s new Down Below, they’ve made that sound even bigger. Make no mistake: Down Below is a great underground metal album, with all the gut-churn riffs and over-the-top intensity that that implies. But it’s also something more ambitious than that. Even at its darkest, nastiest moments, Down Below is a strikingly gorgeous album. It’s an album that sounds the way the snow looked in Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak: cold, relentless, soft, inviting, dotted with blood.
If you’re an underground metal neophyte, as I mostly am, you should be advised that the vocals on Down Below place it firmly within the rasp-gargle tradition of Scandinavian metal. There’s a whole lot of melody, but absolutely none of it comes from frontman Johannes Andersson’s voice. Andersson sings in a strained, intense grunt-roar, a rhythmic demon-snarl. But I’ve come to love Andersson’s voice. In it, I hear some of the same charismatic presence as I once heard in Celtic Frost’s Tom G. Warrior. There’s no wink to Andersson; he’s always serious. The lyrics on Down Below are mostly about loving worship of death-goddesses, and they quite often verge on absolute silliness: “There’s a snake coiling inside of you / There’s a reek that you emit.” But Andersson throws himself into them fully, and there’s just a whole lot to like about the way he pronounces a word like luminous (“luuuu-min-owws”).
Andersson’s voice grounds Down Below, and that’s important, since virtually everything else about the album pushes it heavenward. Adam Zaars and Jonathan Hultén’s guitars sparkle and shimmer, even when they’re pummeling. There’s a glammy, melodic lift to the album’s guitars. Solos aren’t chances for Zaars and Hultén to show off, and they’re certainly not the cat-in-a-blender squiddle-sirens we get from other death metal bands. Instead, the solos are the moments that the songs take off, the parts where the melodies come through most clearly. And there are keyboards all over this thing — not just droning doomily, but also playing tinkling creepily and prettily, like haunted music boxes, or knocking out gooily gothic Cure riffs.
“Purgatorio,” the track right at the center of the album, is an ominously peaceful funeral march, and I hope some horror-movie music supervisor is smart enough to use it to score a candlelit descent into a dusty catacomb. (Swedish goth organist Anna Von Hausswolff adds wordless backing vocals, which rules.) First single and album opener “The Lament” is one of the album’s hardest rockers, but it draws much of its power from the soft synth arpeggiations that make the guitars punch that much harder. And the seven-minute closer “Here Be Dragons” seethes and rumbles its way toward transcendence.
Metal bands — or at least metal bands that debuted after 1990 — don’t really play arenas anymore. There isn’t a system in place for them to get that big, and their audiences would desert them if they seemed like they were even pushing in that direction. But Down Below shows that if Tribulation were ever to randomly find themselves on an arena stage — playing a goth viking wrestler’s entrance music, maybe? — they would belong.
Down Below is out 1/26 on Century Media.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Migos’ as-yet-unheard Culture II.
• Ty Segall’s wooly garage-rock opus Freedom’s Goblin.
• Primal Rite’s feral, thrash-influenced hardcore debut Dirge Of Escapism.
• Mind Spiders’ staring-into-infinity garage-rocker Furies.
• Payroll Giovanni and Cardo’s efficiently slapping Big Bossin’ Vol. 2.
• Long Neck’s fuzzed-out pop-punk debut Will This Do?
• No Age’s dream-punk comeback Snares Like A Haircut.
• Mount Moriah leader H.C. McEntire’s solo debut LIONHEART.
• The Spook School’s elegantly jangled punker Could It Be Different?
• Dream Wife’s self-titled synth-rock debut.
• Johnny Jewel’s atmospheric instrumental LP Digital Rain.
• Khruangbin’s cosmopolitan psych-soul workout Con Todo El Mundo.
• Mammoth Grinder’s old-school death metal ripper Cosmic Crypt.
• Ava Luna side project NADINE’s smooth, flowery debut Oh My.
• Django Django’s oblique new waver Marble Skies.
• Craig David’s fleet-footed UK soul return The Time Is Now.
• Jesse Merchant’s melancholy folk-rocker Illusion Of Love.
• Calexico’s woozy roots exploration The Thread That Keeps Us.
• Mimicking Birds’ synthy roots-rocker Layers Of Us.
• Her Space Holiday’s Gravity EP.