Thursday, July 25, 2019

album review: 'planetary clairvoyance' by tomb mold

So I've said this before, I'll say it again: I'm not the biggest death metal fan - at all. Doesn't mean I can't recognize it or won't listen to it if it's playing, but as a subgenre of metal, it's never quite been my thing. And I've asked myself why a couple of times - if I'm not into the technical stuff, that's one thing, but melodic death metal is a thing that exists, and I've heard a decent bit of it, surely there's a middle ground and inroad for me to start hearing more of the genre.

Well, believe it or not, there is one death metal band I enjoy a considerable bit - all the more ironic because they aren't really perceived as one of the softer acts in the subgenre, with more of the comparisons trending towards a more rough-edged classic death metal with slightly filthier production: Tomb Mold. And I'm genuinely not sure what it is - I'm sure a part of it is tied to them being Canadian and thus me having seen them live about three or four times - and they're phenomenal live - but they managed to hit the sweet spot where they've got a genuine tunefulness in their composition, decent enough writing, and yet a chugging thickness across the board that doesn't sound blown out or chasing cheaply produced abrasion - there are levels of organic depth and pummeling presence to their sound that is entirely up my alley. And sure, Manor Of infinite Forms did clean things up a little to draw more attention to their excellent lead work, and you can always make the argument the group is a little one-dimensional and meat-and-potatoes - they are - but again, I'm not a death metal fan and there's something here that clicks. So I genuinely wanted to give their newest album Planetary Clairvoyance a spin, especially as some were calling it their best to date... so what did we get?

So here's the thing: I really like this album - in fact, I'd argue it's damn close to great in terms of delivering Tomb Mold's now established formula with even more tenacity and ferocity, and the sort of experimentation that shows a band comfortable in its formula but also willing and able to expand its sound. But there's two main problems with this review right out of the gate: I'm not a death metal fan, and thus don't have the larger pool of reference, and more to the point, it's hard to avoid the feeling might have expanded their potential in one area while slightly contracting in another, so I question whether this could be a lateral move - or indeed, this is what the more conventional Tomb Mold would want.

So let me start by saying that if you know the Tomb Mold 'sound', you'll grasp this album very quickly: a titanic chugging low-end that has a ton of genuine crunch, cavernous kick drums that can almost feel doom-like at moments, moments of insane shredding, and a remarkably organic, almost bestial presence, anchored by Max Klebanoff's guttural delivery. All of this has a mixing and mastering focus that hits the precise line between thunderous smolder and a surprising amount of melodic intricacy amidst the down-tuned crunch, where the guitars solos sound like they're clawing out of the deep before getting subsumed again, and it's that organic tunefulness matching the furiosity that absolutely appeals to me. And yet some of that melody feels all the more hard-pressed and buried this time around beneath the caveman riffs and incomprehensible roars, and on songs like 'Infinite Resurrection' and 'Cerulean Salvation' they absolutely feel more chaotic and pummeling - which to a hardcore death metal fan I can see being all the more awesome, but for me amidst the cavalcade of riffs you can lose some of that uniqueness, where the hooks are there but the brighter moments get suffocated. And yet to their credit, the songs don't meander or seem to lose focus, and that's more because of some of the stylistic diversions that show up across this project, that are absolutely new for a band that I previously described as one-dimensional: I might not entirely like the abrupt shift to acoustics that split 'Beg To Life', even if the roiling return to the riffs after it is kickass, but the first real sign something has shifted comes on the third track 'Phosphorene Ultimate'. It's the shortest moment, feels otherwise like an interlude, but amidst the clipped vocal textures and borderline ambient tones, it sounds like a fragmented piece pulled from a spacier project. But what's so striking is that it doesn't feel like your synth-heavy space rock diversion - it's just as primal and unnerving in its own way, and once you pick up on that you start hearing other odd production choices to emphasize that cosmic horror - echoing vocal snippets buried within the title track, how 'Heat Death' collapses into feedback and clipped distortion to end out the album, other more spare moments that are fleeting but capture just enough barren isolation. I've also heard some comparisons being made to Cynic's first album Focus, and while I can hear some of this, I tend to consider Cynic a little more precise and technical that thicker, stormier grooves we get here.

And this is where I actually have to give Tomb Mold more credit, because these choices absolutely reflect their style of writing. The band has described this album as an 'complete annihilation of everything', starting from the first songs in gory territory where the cancerous, primal horrors between the stars and multiply and consume, where death and time are mere markers to be counted as it's all reborn again and again, an alien monstrosity somewhere between Phyrexia and the Chaos Gods of Warhammer 40K. But while you know all of this is going to end up in flames and dying between the stars, what's intriguing about this project is there's a weird sense of humanity within the story. All of this might seem aberrant and alien, but 'Infinite Resurrection' mentions in its final lines that there was at one point humanity here, dragged through endlessly ghastly rebirths and never able to find peace or sleep. And while now you might immediately think, 'okay, we're going for extended suicidal metaphors here', that's not really the vibe either, because this album isn't melancholic or depressing so much as it is acceptance of that end, to quote 'Accelerative Phenomenae' it's "not a sobbing death, but a final lament" in the face of whatever titanic, ineffable force will finally snuff out this existence. So yeah, it's bleak, but by the time you get to the end of the album, it's more of the destruction of a cancer, a cycle of overgrown disease finally purged so a natural order is restored for whatever is next to come. And if all of this seems overblown and kind of ridiculous... well, for one, it's death metal, you kind of expect it, but there is a tightness, emotive core, and command of atmosphere that kind of lets me take this seriously.

But as a whole... for as much as I love the atmosphere, the cohesion, the sense that Tomb Mold is growing and evolving as a band and gaining real dimensionality, I do wish some of the tunes came through more strongly, and while I've been listening to this album steadily for the past week, I do worry if further burying those in the murk of chugging riffs will make this feel a little less memorable, which even on a project that had more melody like Manor Of Infinite Forms it became an issue longer-term. But on the flip side, I'm inclined to err on the side of positive simply because there is more going on here outside of the central formula, and even components that some might consider vestigial - like lyrics - have improved significantly, so I'm going to give this a very light 8/10 and a real recommendation. Obviously if you're a death metal fan this needs to be on your radar yesterday, and yet while if you're not this is a tough sell - death metal is its own beast - as someone who isn't crazy about the genre I think this is pretty great, so yeah, check it out!

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