Brooklyn sludge-metal outfit Tombs ended 2011 on just about the highest note possible. Their second album, Path of Totality, was named Decibel magazine's Album of the Year, as well as placing high on lists of the best metal albums of the year by Pitchfork, NPR and Terrorizer.
There was only one problem: The band wasn't particularly pleased with how the album sounded. It's not terribly unusual for musicians to express disappointment in their own work; members of Pink Floyd have been openly critical of The Final Cut, and Robert Plant even called Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" "that bloody wedding song." Still, it comes as a bit of a surprise to hear Tombs frontman Mike Hill discuss the group's acclaimed second album with such reservations.
Maybe it's a case of artists being overly critical of their own work, but as Hill explains, it motivated them to seek out the right person to capture the sound they wanted for their third album, Savage Gold.
"At the end of the day, we weren't happy with the way it sounded. Not that it didn't sound good in a general sense," Hill says. "We had two different ideas about what the engineer was thinking and what we wanted. I think on that record, we wanted to have more of, like, a tighter, more punishing drum sound, guitars a little more in your face. But we were given free rein to do whatever we wanted, so we were cranking the effects up to 10.
"So, when it came time to do Savage Gold, we wanted to make sure to work with the right guy," he continues. "Someone who understands what we do. And that's where [producer] Erik Rutan came in. And that's one of the primary differences between any of our other recordings and our new album."
Savage Gold, released Tuesday, June 10, via Relapse, simultaneously sounds like the work of the band that recorded Path of Totality and something new altogether. It contains many familiar elements—melodic riffs, dense layers of distortion, the occasional explosion into black-metal blast-beat rhythms and a surprising amount of hooks. It's also the most ambitious and diverse album they've ever released. On "Deathtripper," the band pairs a repeated, swirling guitar riff with a slow-moving rhythm and ominous, distorted vocals. And on "Edge of Darkness," Hill, guitarist Garrett Bussanick, bassist Ben Brand and drummer Andrew Hernandez find an invigorating center point between thrash metal, post-punk and psychedelic rock.
The crisp, expansive sound of the record can be attributed in part to Rutan, who's worked with artists ranging from death-metal icons Morbid Angel to indie-folk outfit The Mountain Goats. But the eclectic span of styles on display is just part of the band's sonic makeup.
Tombs play Thursday, June 12 at The Casbah.
"Pretty much from day one with this band, we've been trying to inject a lot of melody into everything we do," Hill says. "Even when it's really extreme or intense, I always want there to be some melody—something to hang on to. I love black metal and death metal and extreme music of all sorts, but I'm also a huge fan of bands like The Cure, Fields of the Nephilim, Swans, Bauhaus, Joy Division—cross pollinating those two things is what I've always imagined Tombs to be."
Lyrically, Savage Gold heavily deals in themes of consciousness and the afterlife. It's pretty common for a metal band to cram their lyric sheets with references to death, but Tombs' take is more philosophical than Slayer's serial-killer narratives or Exhumed's almost cartoonish levels of gore. On "Thanatos," Hill references "pathways beyond the fold," while in "Seance," he sings, "I hear the call from beyond this realm." And "Edge of Darkness" closes with the lines "Cross into the dark / find the great unknown."
After the band released Path of Totality, Hill says, these ideas of what's beyond our perception began to "seep into my consciousness."
"It's just sort of an exploration into consciousness, either through psychedelics or meditation or that sort of thing. It sort of gives you a glimpse into that sort of dimension," Hill says. "[I've been] reading and studying Terence McKenna, some of Graham Hancock's work, and reading everything about ancient civilizations and ideas they had about different levels of consciousness and that sort of thing. A lot of that stuff is a heavy influence of this particular lyric-writing body of work. That's something that, in the last several years, I've been interested in: the boundary land between life and death."
Hill is more pleased with the outcome of Savage Gold, and, indeed, it's a dramatic enough shift from previous records to hear that something has changed with the band. But it's not so much their creative process as their willingness to be more open to allowing someone to help them realize their vision.
"All of our records have a similar sound, except for Savage Gold," he says. "One of the biggest sorts of advancements in the process is me giving up control to someone else—trusting them to have the ability to manifest everything.
"I feel a lot more comfortable in a scenario like that."