Tombs – Under Sullen Skies (Album Review)

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Having first emerged from Brooklyn’s underbelly in the midst of 2007, Tombs has since blossomed beyond the shadows of the underground for a place at the center of black metal’s gaping maw. In heavy favor of a traditional black metal sound peppered with post-metal indulgences, the band’s latest album “Under Sullen Skies” is their second release to grace listeners in 2020. Though some might argue that more darkness is the last thing this overcast year needs, “Under Sullen Skies” is a perfect follow-up punch to the gloom of Tombs’ January EP “Monarchy of Shadows.” It is noteworthy that “Monarchy of Shadows” was not simply a teaser for the album to come: it was a monster with flesh on its bones, a six-track tale which had thrilling peaks and a satisfying conclusion. So in spirit follows “Under Sullen Skies,” its scope spanning as far as the standard boundaries of black metal will permit, inventiveness tempered by practiced aggression in its most basic formulation. 

While the completeness of “Monarchy of Shadows” could have easily sated fans hunger for new Tombs material, “Under Sullen Skies” is a welcome reflection on the exposed heart of black metal without compromise from the modern era. Chaos and melancholy weave together in a poetic fashion, stripped back instrumentals chilling nerves while striking back to the underlying spirit of the genre. By its very nature, “Under Sullen Skies” is crafted from the blunt use of its instrumental abilities, but passages of simplicity do not lead to a reduction in listener engagement. Rather they build on an atmosphere of grit and of a somewhat tired procession, much like the journey many individuals have undertaken over the past months. Solitude is one tangible sensation one may feel listening to guttural howls rake across unprotected nerves in opening song “Bone Furnace,” the chilling effect expounded upon by an incessant bass drum. If there were any doubts that this American metal act could mimic the original Scandinavian masters, succeeding track “Void Constellation” extinguishes any such doubts. With those doubts this track also extinguishes hope, allowing listeners to gaze into an unwelcoming abyss of despair.

“Under Sullen Skies” Album Artwork

The greatest violence of “Under Sullen Skies” is wrought by vocalist and guitarist Mike Hill. While the nature of the band’s approach means that his voice often floats apart from a rather integrated collection of instrumentalists, it is a creative choice which allows him to drift dynamically between passages. “Secrets of the Black Sun” hears him bellow like a blistering winter wind across frigid snow despite the torturously slow pace the track employs otherwise. Hill shows off his vocal versatility in a similar fashion in penultimate track “Sombre Ruin.” For each offering which takes a more meandering, almost doom-influenced approach, there are moments which burn with fierce intensity. “Lex Talionis” is one such example, a brilliant demonstration of fluid songwriting coupled with masterful work from Matt Medeiros on guitars. Medeiros is able to transition cleanly from a speed-driven approach to a more sullen, atmospheric pondering across strings, carrying the album’s pivotal moments.  

For all of its unfiltered rough edges, there are moments which reveal a surprisingly nimble instrumental approach. The bass is not used merely as a hammer designed to inflict soul-crushing brutality, but instead leaps between passages with clear direction. “Void Constellation” delivers its potent atmosphere by combining a tantalizing opening riff with injections of guttural bass notes, pulling listeners every deeper into the cosmic vacuum. Here, Hill’s voice rises above the pondering string instruments before crashing beneath violent percussion, much like the waves of a violent storm crashing over any brief glimpses of light one might glean from Tombs’ barren soundscape. 

Pure metal from its substance to its song titles, the appeal of “Under Sullen Skies” persists from the first notes of “Bone Furnace” through the final echoes of “Plague Years,” from its slowest crawl through its most violent explosions. Most of the album is straightforward and engaging, but surprises such as the haunting spoken word on “Angel of Darkness” or cinematic flourishes opening “The Hunger” only add to the experience as a whole. Timely changes in tempo and consistent yet carrying approaches to the instrumental mix make “Under Sullen Skies” a strong addition to the Tombs discography, and one that is fitting to conclude a year such as this. 

Released By: Season of Mist
Release Date: November 20th, 2020
Genre: Black Metal

Musicians:

  • Mike Hill / Vocals, Guitars, Keyboards, Electronics
  • Drew Murphy / Bass
  • Justin Spaeth / Drums
  • Matt Medeiros / Guitar

“Under Sullen Skies” Track-listing:

  1. Bone Furnace
  2. Void Constellation
  3. Barren
  4. The Hunger
  5. Secrets of the Black Sun
  6. Descensum
  7. We Move Like Phantoms
  8. Mordum
  9. Lex Talionis
  10. Angel of Darkness
  11. Sombre Ruin
  12. Plague Years

8.3 Great

Tombs has always offered black metal without compromise, and "Under Sullen Skies" once against demonstrates their authority in the genre for the modern age. Raw brutality defines an album that embraces darkness wholeheartedly, making the band's second release this year just as memorable as the first.

  • Songwriting 7
  • Musicianship 9
  • Originality 8
  • Production 9
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