Consider, if you will, these two words: “Tomb Mold.” It’s an ugly phrase in every sense of the word. For one thing, it doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue. If you try to say it out loud, the end of one word blurs into the beginning of another, to the point where it sounds like you’re saying “tumult” in a weird accent. And then there’s the meaning of the phrase, the deeply unpleasant lingering reminder that we’re all just dying flesh — that even if our loved ones build us a little monument after we’re gone, the earth will eventually consume that monument. I’m not even sure if Tomb Mold is a good band name or a bad one, but it’s certainly helpful. Toronto’s Tomb Mold play old-school death metal that’s shot through with a sense of fearsome ugliness. Their sounds are all coated in goo and muck and echo, as if they’re calling out to us from some primordial abyss, reminding us that the abyss will have us soon enough.
Now, for comparison’s sake, consider these two words: “Dream Unending.” Much more pleasant! The phrase flows. It could be a line from a prayer. It could be ad copy for some terrifying new tech startup that will affect our lives in ways that we aren’t yet ready to consider. An unending dream could be death itself, but if it is, it’s a much rosier view of oblivion than the phrase “Tomb Mold.” “Dream Unending” isn’t about what becomes of the spoiling meat of our bodies. It’s about our consciousness, about the whole mystery of what our brains do when the lights go out. Depending on how thoroughly you’ve dealt with your own subconscious weirdness, an unending dream doesn’t sound so bad. Even if you’re trapped naked in a fourth-grade hallway for all eternity, it still sounds better than Tomb Mold.
If the phrases “Tomb Mold” and “Dream Unending” suggest hugely different ways of conceptualizing death, then so do the bands Tomb Mold and Dream Unending, even if the same person launched both projects. Last year, stuck at home in Toronto during the pandemic and unable to see his American wife because of closed borders, Tomb Mold guitarist Derrick Vella came up with an idea to make something vast and mystical and spiritual, something that would sound very little like Tomb Mold. He’d long discussed the possibility of starting a project with Justin DeTore, one of the busiest drummers in all of heavy music. Stuck on opposite sides of a national border, they made it happen.
DeTore, from Boston, got his start playing and singing in hardcore bands: Mental, Righteous Jams, No Tolerance. But his interests vary widely. He’s made powerviolence with Mind Eraser and Wound Man, and he’s also become a fearless and prolific metal explorer. Just in the past few months, DeTore has played important parts on huge, thundering albums from Innumerable Forms and Sumerlands. DeTore has been making intense music for a quarter-century, but Dream Unending feels like something new from him, just as it does from Derrick Vella.
The two members of Dream Unending call the band “dream-doom,” a nonexistent genre category that sums up their style up quite nicely. In Dream Unending, Justin DeTore plays drums and bellows out the reverb-drenched death metal vocals. Derrick Vella plays virtually everything else and sings some clean vocals. Together, they take the gothed-out funeral doom of ’90s Peaceville Records bands as a starting point, and then they push way beyond that starting point. Dream Unending songs can be long; the one called “Dream Unending” does end, but it doesn’t happen until after the 11-minute mark. Those tracks combine bone-deep heaviness with stunning, woozy astral beauty in strange, fascinating ways.
On a recent episode of the great interview podcast Forum Of Passion, Derrick Vella reels off a fascinating, disorienting list of Dream Unending influences: King’s X, Steve Winwood, Cocteau Twins, the Cure, the Blue Nile, Alice In Chains. At one point, he goes off on a jag about how he wishes he could find a harp. He couldn’t afford one, and he doesn’t have the space to keep it, but he’d love to record a harp through a distortion pedal over some heavy riffs. In describing the sound in his head, Vella sounds almost rhapsodic. (If you’re a harpist, get at him.) Dream Unending sounds very much like what they are: two gifted, experienced metal musicians trying to capture a colossal and elusive feeling that goes beyond subcultural identification or, indeed, earthly limits. It’s bewildering, and it’s beautiful.
Last year, Dream Unending released Tide Turns Eternal, their strikingly powerful and original debut album. Vella and DeTore recorded their parts remotely, but it’s hard to think about the circumstances of the album’s creation while it’s playing. Instead, you just get lost in the sound. If you’re looking for tangible echoes of Steve Winwood in Tide Turns Eternal, you might come up dry. But if you think of the album as the brainchild of a death metal guitar ace who proudly touts his Steve Winwood fandom, it makes more sense. Tide Turns Eternal is dense and exploratory, full of left turns and new feelings. Derrick Vella’s father David played keyboard and piano — two instruments not exactly common in most forms of underground metal. When the voice of McKenna Rae, a singer-songwriter from Alberta, wells up, it seems to come from nowhere. Something similar happens when Richard Poe, a 76-year-old veteran actor with a lot of Star Trek credits and some big-deal audiobooks to his name, recites a spoken-word passage, his stately and dramatic voice cloaked in reverb. It’s a clear labor of love for everyone involved.
Song Of Salvation, Dream Unending’s second album, is coming out slightly less than one year after the first. To hear Derrick Vella tell it, the experience of recording Tide Turns Eternal unlocked something in him. Song Of Salvation uses, more or less, the same cast of musicians as the first album. David Vella once again plays keyboards. McKenna Rae and Richard Poe make appearances, as do Derrick Vella’s Tomb Mold bandmate Max Klebanoff, trumpeter and composer Leila Abdul-Rauf, and former Sumerlands singer Phil Swanson. Once again, the album finds Derrick Vella and Justin DeTore digging deep into the mines of depression and hopelessness and finding some perfect, glittering gems amidst all the murk.
The first song on Song Of Salvation lasts 14 minutes, and it opens with a chiming, swirling guitar that somehow sounds both medieval and cosmic. The last song on Song Of Salvation lasts 16 minutes, and it ends with unrelenting, triumphant doom metal riffage and with cavernous depths-of-hell roars. In between, the music touches on wildly different sounds — dazed bongwater-gurgling prog, ritualistic druids-chanting tribal goth, renaissance-faire blues-rock, ribcage-hammering sludge. The album should feel schizophrenic and unfocused, but that never happens. Instead, the music all works as part of the same journey. It feels wrong to even pick out different genre nods or influences from the whole. Instead, the best way to hear Song Of Salvation is to zone the fuck out, to let the whole thing wash over you.
Dream Unending have never played live, and I’m not sure they even could. The entire enterprise seems to live in the studio, in headphones. It might be great to hear these songs loud, but I can’t help feeling like they’d lose something if I heard them while headbanging in a concrete room full of other people. Instead, this is headphones music, music built for solitary contemplation or meditation. It’s heavy music about heavy things, but it brings a sense of beauty and lightness and maybe even hope. It’s been a while since I’ve let myself get lost in an album like this one. I can’t believe two musicians made two albums this expansive and powerful in the space of just one year. I can only imagine what they’ll be able to accomplish if they keep exploring. Someone, please, get them a harp.
Song Of Salvation is out 11/11 on 20 Buck Spin.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Bruce Springsteen’s Only The Strong Survive
• Christine And The Queens’ Redcar les adorables étoiles
• Soul Blind’s Feel It All Around
• Dumb’s Pray 4 Tomorrow
• L.S. Dunes’ Past Lives
• Jordana’s I’m Doing Well, Thanks For Asking EP
• Nas’ King’s Disease III
• Drowse’s Wane Into It
• S.C.A.B.’s self-titled LP
• Hyd’s Clearing
• Homeboy Sandman’s Still Champion
• Gold Panda’s The Work
• FaltyDL’s A Nurse To My Patience
• Colin Stetson’s Chimæra I
• Jeff Parker’s Mondays At The Enfield Tennis Academy
• Bill Nace’s Through A Room
• Plaid’s Feorm Falorx
• Lyrics Born’s Vision Board
• Ging’s We’re Here
• Nicolas Bougaïeff’s Begin Within
• Smut’s How The Light Felt
• Paul Maroon & Jenny Lin’s 13 Short Piano Pieces
• Smidley’s Here Comes The Devil
• Sweet Cobra’s Threes
• Tony Shhnow’s Plug Motivation
• Jeb Loy Nichols’ The United States Of The Broken Hearted
• Blinker The Star’s Love Oblast
• Those Pretty Wrongs’ Paper Cup
• Headie One’s No Borders: European Compilation Project
• Louis Tomlinson’s Faith In The Future
• Morris Day’s Last Call
• Fitz And The Tantrums’ Let Yourself Free
• Ludwig Göransson’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever score
• Run The Jewels’ RTJ CU4TRO remix album
• MGMT’s 11-11-11 live album
• Sharon Van Etten’s We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong (Deluxe)
• The Live Forever: A Tribute To Billy Joe Shaver compilation
• Robert Lester Folsom’s Sunshine Only Sometimes: Archives Vol. 2, 1972–1975
• GloRilla’s Anyways, Life’s Great… EP
• Envy’s Seimei EP
• Busta Rhymes’ The Fuse Is Lit EP
• Pile Of Love’s Flake On The Future EP
• Actress’ Dummy Corporation EP
• Bright Eyes’ Lifted… / I’m Wide Awake… / Digital Ash companion EPs
• Thank You Driver’s Nothing You Do Can Stop This EP
• David Knudson’s Undo/Redo EP