Death is all around us. We see it on TV every day. We read about it on our social media accounts. Sometimes it happens to us directly when we lose a loved one. It is certain, but what’s after it is shrouded with mystery.
That’s one of the themes that drove Mike Hill, vocalist/guitarist for the mighty experimental black metal band Tombs on their huge third record “Savage Gold.” Death is something we all know is coming, and none of us can avoid its presence. So why not reach beyond that murk and try to find some other kind of meaning?
“When we die, we have no idea what goes on beyond that if anything,” Hill says on the phone from his Brooklyn home. “It’s not like any of us know anyone who passed away who were able to get on Facebook or Twitter afterward and say, ‘Hey man, everything’s OK!’ So there’s this whole idea of imaging what goes on from here. Is there another plane of existence? Does it go black? What’s there when you die?”
It’s a heavy question, and one that could keep people awake at night, but for Hill, he saw it differently. “Savage Gold” is full of references to death, worlds falling apart, fire, and even suicide, but as far as he’s concerned, he’s not seeing death as a negative. He doesn’t view “Savage Gold” as a downer or a dark, depressing record; rather it is one that strives into positive terrain and makes sure doing the most things possible in life is at the forefront.
“It’s not meant to be a negative way of thinking,” he says. “It’s reaching beyond this life, transforming into something else, and perhaps living on in same way or form. That’s what I was looking at when writing this record. Stretching beyond and transformation.”
As for the album title itself, the “gold” contained in the title is not referring to riches or fortunes in the physical sense, but rather alchemy, where scientists long strive to turn base metals into pure gold. Alchemists constantly are looking into greater means of understanding and knowledge, a new level of awareness not discovered before, making something great out of something mundane, and Hill says that mission is something that fueled his thinking while he was writing the songs contained on this incredible
album, the best yet in their catalog.
The album shows more of the band’s progression, something that’s been a major part of Tombs from their humble beginnings on their debut EP, through to their 2009 debut “Winter Hours,” into 2011’s “Path of Totality,” and now to “Savage Gold.” Hill says progression and refusal to adhere to boxes or restraints from any one genre have fueled the band from day one, and he says he’s not concerned if naysayers out there are worried there is not enough black metal in their sound or if they happen to add more post-punk sounds into their mix like they do on the new album.
Hill also has expanded his voice quite a bit. Yes, you hear plenty of his burly growls that sound as monstrous as ever, but he’s also using more of his low-register singing voice, something he says is inspired by heavy hitters such as Tom G. Warrior of Triptykon, Celtic Frost, and Hellhammer (“He’s one of my heroes, for sure.”) and Carl McCoy of Fields of Nephilim. It’s another way he is branching out and becoming the most he can be as an artist.
Some other changes come as far as lineup and those working behind the scenes. Death metal producer extraordinaire Erik Rutan (whose band Hate Eternal is one not to be messed with) is behind the board for “Savage Gold,” as Hill says he’s always been impressed with his work, especially with what he’s done with Goatwhore, who Hill calls “probably one of my top five favorite metal bands.”
As far as the band goes, guitarist Ben Brand (ex-Woe) and Garrett Bussanick (Flourishing) joined the band to replace Dan Howard and Carson Daniel James, respectively. There was no crazy drama or gossip-rich stories behind the lineup shuffling, as Hill says the responsibilities of everyday life combined with the rigors of touring and being in the band simply made it impossible for the former members to continue on with Hill and drummer Andrew Hernandez II. It’s not that he doesn’t miss playing with those guys, but Hill thinks Tombs’ current formation is formidable and one that could power the band well into the future.
“I’m really happy with this lineup,” Hill says. “We’ve had some really great players in this band over the years, and all have helped Tombs get where we have gotten. But I’m really excited about this lineup, and I think it’s one of the strongest in our history.”
As far as the record goes, it tears open with “Thanatos,” a callback to the Greek daemon of death that Hill says inspired the song. It’s a grisly, meaty number that’s unforgivably heavy and should leave massive bruising. Hill’s howls of, “Our savage gold!” midway through the cut is one that easily could be shouted back live, and it’s a great first dose of this new Tombs. “Portraits” follows with a strong black metal-style lead, along with some post-punk melodies trickling over top everything, and Hill unleashes some of his most monstrous growls, backed by drumming that sounds like it is trying to turn everything to dust. “Séance” is heavy and blistering, with a calculated pace, more harsh growls, and a tempo that chugs along mightily. Hill revisits the record’s underlying theme, howling, “I hear the calm from beyond this realm, exist outside of time,” with the last portion yelled repeatedly. “Echoes” has colder, cleaner tones, with Hill’s vocals easing into lower register singing. When the tempo kicks up, so does the intensity of Hill’s voice, as he sounds like he’s channeling current-day Tom G. Warrior with his icy shouts. “Life is fragile,” he later reminds, bringing everything back into perspective and finishing the track with freezing sentiment and more raucous drums. “Deathtripper” also pulls back a bit, at least at the start, with darker melodies flowing and the singing taking on a purposeful monotone. As the track progresses, sludgy doom re-emerges, as the band pounds away vigorously, with Hill shouting, “I can’t stop the dream of blood and suicide.”
“Edge of Darkness” digs back into pure heaviness, with guitars taking on black metal tones, Hill declaring, “I see the end of time,” in as morbid a way as he possibly can, and the fires burning along until the track reaches its final destination. “Ashes” is built on aggression and some boiling guitar work that can get your blood moving, as the words reach beyond this plane of existence and into something altogether not accessible by human touch. “Deny the gifts of heaven,” Hill shouts, not so much as a lash out against spirituality but as a means of encouraging more open-minded thinking about what’s out there. “Legacy” is the most straightforward track on “Savage Gold,” setting up its crushing mission, carrying out its intentions, and bludgeoning you with power. “Severed Lives” slips back into the murk, with Hill’s voice joining it in the darkness, singing, “We rule the world/This burning world,” as eerie guitars ring out and the final moments get ready to unfurl. That last blast is “Spiral,” a song that addresses death to its face, with guitars swirling, some weird sounds spilling out, and Hill prodding aloud, “We live in fear/What lies beyond our mortal soul?” Therefore, his final words are turned on the listener as much as himself as he poses the question, “And when you feel the darkness calling, how will your final thoughts assemble?” And the final moments of the song sound like what he just described, as blips and strange wooshes settle in, almost as if your soul is being transported to whatever journey awaits you next.
Tombs never are at a loss when it comes to though-provoking material and damaging metallic assaults, but “Savage Gold” is both their most sobering and, if you approach it the right way, most inspirational. None of us know when the switch will be turned off, and many of us could do a lot better living like there is no tomorrow and making the best of this plane of existence. This is Tombs’ most ambitious work yet, a record that will take you on an existential journey mentally and still bludgeon you sonically. Good luck shaking it, because this thing’s going to stick with you.
For more on the band, go here: https://www.facebook.com/TombsBklyn
To buy the album, go here: http://www.relapse.com/store.html
For more on the label, go here: http://relapse.com/