At its best, metal can provide a form of escapism that few other musical genres can. There's an inherently cathartic aspect to music played loud, fast and heavy. There's also a theatricality to metal that's always made it fun, whether taking shape in the dual-guitar solos of Iron Maiden, the corpsepainted stage presence of King Diamond, or the hammy, tongue-in-cheek evil of Venom. Metal, to borrow a phrase from Poison, ain't nothin' but a good time.
As metal has evolved, the conversation has progressed toward highlighting metal's most extreme sounds, as evident in the hyper-speed grindcore riffs of Pig Destroyer or the inhuman avant garde black metal of Deathspell Omega. The fun element of metal has largely become overshadowed by how far a band can push the envelope. Metal has always been about breaking down boundaries and testing limits, but can metal be extreme and still retain its sense of fun?
Sweden's Tribulation might be able to offer some insight on that. Since the band's formation in 2004, Tribulation have ostensibly played an extreme form of metal, and an unconventional one at that, twisting death metal into more progressive and avant garde shapes on 2013's The Formulas of Death. As the band prepared to record their third album The Children of the Night, however, they decided to step back from that precarious precipice and seek inspiration from their heavy metal roots—as well as some less obvious, more whimsical influences
“A lot of people, at least those I knew when I was growing up, started listening to Iron Maiden or to Kiss or Metallica or whatever, and then they started listening to Slayer and Cannibal Corpse—the more extreme bands. And they sort of adapted the first bands they listened to,” says Tribulation guitarist Adam Zaars in a phone interview from his home in Sweden. “But we always listened more to Iron Maiden than pretty much any extreme metal band.
“I can say that we also had some inspiration from old Nintendo games,” he continues. “Like Mega Man, Zelda, Castlevania. And we still listen to a lot of that stuff. Some of the games were quite horrible, but they had really, really good music.”
With The Children of the Night, released in April via Century Media, Tribulation make a strong case for keeping metal's sense of fun intact. Somewhat removed from the harsher, epic sounds of its predecessor, Children finds Tribulation embracing melody and, in their own uniquely dark way, pop songwriting in a way they haven't before. Zaars says they intentionally wrote choruses for some of these songs, and on the post-punk inspired “The Motherhood of God” and the Pink Floydlike “Holy Libations,” those choruses are massive— triumphant, even.
Tribulation play Oct. 15 at The Casbah.
Zaars, vocalist and bass player Johannes Andersson, guitarist Jonathan Hultén and drummer Jakob Ljungberg have constructed an album that, if you were to remove the growling vocals, sounds a lot like a heavier version of a great rock ‘n' roll record. Not that Tribulation has, in any way, shed the darkness that's characterized their music from the beginning; it's just presented in a more accessible way, as displayed through its cover art—which evokes silent-era German horror films—or the spooky organ intro that fades into album opener “Strange Gateways Beckon.”
Zaars acknowledges how crucial that darkness is to Tribulation's aesthetic but also recognizes it can be overbearing if not handled properly.
“The music, and the artwork, is obviously inspired by various things dark,” he says. “But...I think we approach the darkness in it from a different perspective than maybe most bands do when they think about darkness. I think we present it in a more subtle way. I'm not sure why, but it's obviously some sort of reflection of the people we are. We're not all dark. But I also think…we've been living with this darkness for a long time. So it's not really dark to us anymore. We don't really have to do the blast beats to punch people in the face with the music anymore. It's not that straightforward. There are nuances.”
The progression that Tribulation has undergone throughout their decade as a band has found the quartet pushing their own personal limits and imposing new challenges, even when it sometimes means aiming for something that more closely resembles conventional songwriting. And they've reaped the rewards of it; The Children of the Night is their most highly acclaimed album to date, and the band is about to embark on a North American tour with black metal heavyweights Deafheaven. More people are hearing Tribulation's music now, and while Zaars hopes that new fans will become curious enough to dive into their back catalog, he's also a lot more interested in continuing down the path of progression and artistic growth that they're already on.
“You always hope that the people hearing it will like the old stuff,” he says. “But I don't think that's the case with us all the time. I don't think we can expect it. There are definitely people who like the new album but don't care for the old stuff. At the same time, it's always nice to hear people who heard even the first album and stuck with us from the beginning, who also appreciate the change and everything we're doing.
“We are where we are now,” he adds, “so we're not really looking back.”