Tomb Mold – The Enduring Spirit

Tomb Mold The Enduring Spirit review

Before Tomb Mold dropped off the face of the metal world (at least under this project), they had just released the one-two punch of their second and third albums, 2018’s Manor of Infinite Forms and 2019’s Planetary Clairvoyance. The previous is a nasty and progressive slab of Finnish-style old school death metal while the latter adopted proggy tech flourishes better associated with groups like Cynic (or, more accurately, the bands that came in their wake). This material was a quantum leap over their earlier demos and debut record, which showcased a primordial stew of the elements that would later come to dominate their recorded material. On those earlier releases, we saw snatches of their uses of synthesizers, largely in mood-setting intros, their approach to deeply ignorant riffing and razor-sharp soloing. But, while many were excited by this span of material from those early demos to Clairvoyance, including the gradual refinement of the soundfield to something higher fidelity, cleaner, more beautiful, there wasn’t a great deal to indicate a deeper sense of ambition within the group. Had they continued on this road, releasing records within the boundaries they’d established for themselves with those first three LPs, they would have had a comfortable career, producing respectable and even best-of-year releases in the genre.

Instead, they took a break, one which lasted four years until the next LP. (This timeline, admittedly, is skewed; they had a song on the confoundingly well-curated Cyberpunk 2077 soundtrack in 2020 as well as a three-song EP titled Aperture of Body released last year, none of which appears on this new record and, in retrospect, was clearly the band chewing through ideas on the road to crafting this particular release. More on that notion later.) In the meantime, they pursued extracurriculars; guitarist Derrick Vella founded the progressive death-doom duo Dream Unending, who quickly produced two LPs which were rapturously received, while drummer Max Klebanoff and guitarist Payson Power formed a jazzy/proggy math rock instrumental group called Daydream Plus who delivered an understated but deeply beautiful four-song EP. Vella additionally joined Outer Heaven and recorded bass for their 2023 LP as well. There was a real worry in some spaces that the response to Dream Unending particularly might have stymied continued productive work on Tomb Mold, with players moving on to greener pastures so to speak. Thankfully, these fears were misplaced.

These vectors of activity clearly had a clarifying effect on the aims of Tomb Mold as a project. The Enduring Spirit shows a complex amalgam of the elements of these side projects. The progressive structures of Manor which were abandoned for the more traditional prog metal sounds of Clairvoyance have been melded together at the hip, now taking on both structure and sonics, approaching something substantially closer to what Cynic actually did on their phenomenal run of records (including their wildly undersung most recent album Ascension Codes) than what their copycats pursued. But this progressivist development of Tomb Mold feels strongly emboldened by the spacier, more dreamlike and ultimately more beautiful work Dream Unending was doing in those four years of the break especially when compared to Tomb Mold’s own earlier material; the introduction of both dreamier and doomier passages into this record’s DNA, not to mention within the stellar 11-minute epic which closes the record, feels impossible to have been produced without that interstitial project and its own injections of musical DNA into the form.

But likewise the emo and math rock of Daydream Plus makes its presence known across this material. The clean passages, of which there are many, now no longer feel like a death metal band dialing back but a prog or fusion group dialing in. The percussion in those passages takes on a rich, cymbal-heavy complexity, leaning toward the same kind of vibe Cynic drummer Sean Reinert summoned at his very best, while certain chordal and melodic choices of the guitars indicate an expanded harmonic language that, while not jazz itself, definitely shows they’ve at least been paying keener attention to the options available to them via functional harmony and multi-note chords beyond simple triads. There’s a delicate balance someone writing about this kind of material must pursue: there are legions afoot who, at mention of their dread MK-ULTRA trigger word “jazzy,” descend like mad jackals upon writers and publications. But in this case, the sentiment is grounded precisely in the jazz-inflected material of the side group the drummer and other guitarist were part of; the connection here is deliberate, if albeit recontextualized to still being resolutely progressive metal rather than jazz proper.

Add in to this mix the four tracks produced between Clairvoyance and now and we can chart the group themselves slowly edging toward this songwriting modality. Granted, its not clear at least as of the time of this writing whether those tracks were older unrecorded pieces or ones written in the interim, but regardless of their original provenance, their position as being released between the two creates a natural linkage; these were pieces that were deemed unfit for this LP, correctly I might add, hewing far closer to the death metal idiom than the more robust hybrid of progressive metal and death metal showcased here.

Likewise, the progressive playing here skews away from the major sins of most technical death metal, that being an overbearing fixation on cloying sonic ideas like sweep picking and a certain frankly annoying atonalism. These pieces are sharply melodic, the parts song-oriented even when they are of the more technical variety. A key point about this record can ironically be made by a critique of this record floated in certain circles: while its true that Decrepit Birth produced a record of this style roughly a decade ago and had much higher overall tempos, this record feels more song-oriented than that one, giving its pieces a proper sense of space and groove to establish their conceits. Again, a comparison can be made to Cynic, who notably dialed down their overall speed from their demo days all in an attempt to let the songs, solos and instrumental passages breathe a bit more, a method that is in no small part a portion of why they are all-time greats and certain other bands, well, aren’t.

The apex of the record is showcased on the finale, the title track “The Enduring Spirit of Calamity.” Over its 11 minutes, they showcase shards of each small idea present over the course of the preceding record, from thrashy riffs to doomy passages to New Age- and fusion-inflected soloing to progressive metal grooves, all melded against a backdrop of death metal. For years prior to this, the leaders of the current wave of death metal groups was far and away Blood Incantation (who themselves have a masterful new EP out as well); this was due largely to the sense of sonic adventurism and ambition showcased by that group, a remarkable acumen for brilliant songwriting and arranging and not just the (admittedly necessary!) ability to churn out disgusting riffs and brutal psychedelic mindscapes. The Enduring Spirit marks not only Tomb Mold’s return to activity but also is a strong challenge for the throne of best death metal band of their crop. Death metal is and remains the greatest form of art mankind has produced, reason enough to stay alive even when we are stripped of everything else. I’m listening to death metal.

Label: 20 Buck Spin

Year: 2023

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