New York veterans Tombs are better described as “black metal adjacent” than straight black metal. Like Germany’s Bethlehem or Sweden’s Shining, the band’s divergent influences make its connection to black metal more nominal than a stylistic pigeonhole. Over the past 13 years, Mike Hill has kept Tombs going through many lineup changes. Said shakeups did take their toll on some of the band’s 2017 full-length The Grand Annihilation, but the Monarchy of Shadows EP hinted at an artistic rebirth for the band. Under Sullen Skies lives up to that end, presenting a diverse onslaught of frightening atmosphere, skull-caving heaviness, and inexplicable catchiness—along with a few surprising guests!
The riff-a-minute barn-burner “Bone Furnace” opens things up with Tombs' fleshy, stomping take on black metal mayhem. Let the purists cry about the non-necro production all they want, Tombs’s barrel-chested low-end, abundant rhythm breaks, and primal scare factor come more bulletproof than ever. Hill’s vocal range remains incredibly engaging, as are his riffs. Even when things get more kvlt with the sorrowful tremolo riffs and un-ending blast beats of “Barren,” the band has no problem with throwing a dazzling guitar solo from Six Feet Under’s Ray Suhy (where has this been on the past few SFU albums???)—along with a cathartic half-time passage lined with anthemic guitar leads.
Taking a page from the Tom Warrior rulebook, Tombs extract palpable spookiness from chest-beating aggression. Drew Murphy’s gnarly basslines get a chance to shine amid the chuggy, double-bass intro of “Void Constellation,” before the band locks into a rumbling, murky groove that takes from the slowest tunes from East Coast death metal and Celtic Frost. Justin Spaeth’s drumming remains equally savage and precise, as he tastefully shifts his playing for each distinct section. Classic death-doom is one thing, but that kick-in-the-teeth New York hardcore mosh riff is simply next level… and that's not even the last time Hill flexes his roots in NYHC.
It’s not unheard of to find Integrity vocalist Dwid Hellion on “The Hunger,” considering the Krieg split, but the natural commingling of his throaty Lemmy-ish shouts and Hill’s rasps and growls displays an unlikely kinship between the two artists. The caveman beat and massive riffs abound in unfiltered viscera, but Tombs’ devotion to thoughtful songwriting transcends labels (let’s not forget that synth-laden fade-in!). The brief, primitive instrumental “We Move Like Phantoms” would slump into boredom in the hands of a dime-a-dozen beatdown hardcore band, but these guys understand how to imbue space chugs and violent beats with nuance and eeriness. Each member shows evidence of creative input, and the production sports depth and adaptability to match its punchiness.
Whether it be the haunting, reverberant, funeral doom of “Secrets Of The Black Sun” or the hi-fi Transilvanian Hunger worship found in “Angel Of Darkness,” none of the ideas Tombs present sound forced. What’s more impressive is how each hue of darkness contributes to a conceptual whole. As the former’s slow-burning procession takes its course, Hill’s baritone drawl and menacing retches contrast with Sera Timms’ mournful singing. He wallows in a fatalistic diatribe worthy of Edgar Alan Poe: “Voice of the Raven calls/ Terror is thy name/ Endless river of time/ In this realm of sacrifice.” Similarly, the latter sets up its blackened blizzard with a chilling monologue from occultist Cat Cabral: “The night belongs to him/ To become shadow/ To dominate the black corner/ And to live in solitary ruin.”
Tombs offers an idiosyncratic aura, not only embodying the best of multiple styles, but making sure each song leaves its mark. It’s so refreshing to hear a supposedly black metal band introduce abusive East Coast death metal riffs on a cut like “Descensum,” before its second half reintroduces walls of tremolo-picking and even some Attila Csihar-style operatic singing. Both extremes work swimmingly, which allows “Mordum” to ride a steed of mid-tempo chugs and minor-key harmonies into an abyss sunset.
Tombs clearly reveal in this sonic cavalcade, as exemplified by the lightning-fast blackened grind and syncopated breakdowns of “Lex Talionis” and the depressive, ambient dirge of “Sombre Ruin.” It takes both guts and artistry to merit comparisons to Anaal Nathrakh and Nortt in the same breath. But, as closer “Plague Years” proves, it’s not just the genre juggling that makes Under Sullen Skies so great. The song’s bewitching melodic black metal fury careens into a classic black metal waltz, only to lay the album to rest in slow-motion morbidity—and it’s all too infectious to resist. Tombs is truly a master of all trades this time around.
Hill sums up his musical headspace like so: “I don’t give a fuck if people enjoy the music. I know I like it.” That sentiment is deeply ingrained into the fiber of Under Sullen Skies. Tombs does what they want, and they do it very well. Without getting bogged down in minutiae, these guys let their ideas speak for themselves.