More and more, genre constraints are falling by the wayside. But sometimes there are too many places to pull inspiration — almost like several different stereos playing at once, fighting for attention. Somewhere out there, John Cage is running a victory lap.
But there are also musicians who can distill that barrage of sounds into something that, while familiar in its roots, functions as something new. "Extreme metal" isn't necessarily a term I like, but when I called up Mike Hill from Tombs about the Brooklyn band's upcoming record, Path of Totality, he used "extreme music" to talk about dynamics. And, as you'll hear in the premiere of "Silent World," Tombs isn't afraid to temper harsh extremes with an apocalyptic melody that still punishes.
NPR Music will stream Tombs' Path of Totality in its entirety from May 30 to June 7 as part of its First Listen series, but in the meantime, check out "Silent World" and read an interview with vocalist and guitarist Mike Hill.
I listened to both Winter Hours and Path of Totality back to back today, and I realized that with Winter Hours, there was almost a relentless sound in both its mix and its movement. I feel more of a push and pull on Path of Totality — it's a more dynamic record on the whole. Where did this shift come from?
The word "extreme music" is thrown around a lot, and I'm a fan of extreme music. To push extremity, I feel like you should also have more dynamics in the overall experience of the record. To be extreme, in my opinion, you should have the really aggressive material and then temper that with material that's not as aggressive to bookmark the aggression. It makes the intense parts more intense, and [then you] break it up with the things that are softer. That's been the dynamic of the last couple years — to be extreme, but not always at one level of intensity.
The production on this record is definitely beefier, but looser. John Congleton, who's produced records for everyone from Explosions in the Sky to Modest Mouse, was on Path of Totality. Did he push you to this more dynamic sound?
Definitely. I'm familiar with about half of his catalog. He worked on the last Baroness record, called Blue.
That record's excellent. It was one of my favorites from that year.
It's a great-sounding record. It's a great record all around. I met John a couple years ago when we were on tour. He was at our show in Dallas with Baroness. And that's when the idea started of him working on the next record. I don't know if we hadn't had that personal interaction, that he would have been my first choice as an engineer. But the communication during the writing period galvanized our choice to work with him. Because he has such a diverse background when it comes to productions, he definitely helped mold the final product.
The common names that come up to work on a metal record are guys who work on metal or hardcore and music that sounds like that. And they do that very well. But they may not be open to other ideas. Congleton is open to more experimental viewpoints.
Tombs comes from a lot of different places at once. I hear the backbone of Neurosis, the fury of hardcore, the blast-beated darkness of black metal, the heavy melodic sense of Killing Joke, just to name a few. You guys don't really go for purity in metal, do you?
No, not at all. Some of our favorite bands are bands that don't follow the trends or fit any sort of mold. You mentioned Neurosis. Every record by them sounds not completely different, but there's a trajectory in their career. I would also throw the Swans in there, too. Swans is primarily Michael Gira, but the band developed from this lumbering dirge monstrosity to different phrases in their career. That's what I'd like Tombs to do. I'd like Tombs to have a career trajectory where records sound different; there are different ideas and different moods being expressed. That's the game plan for the band.
So you see Tombs having a prog-rock period?
No, I don't think that will happen. [Laughs.] We continue to look inward and pull out the inward material instead of looking outward and pulling influences. The first couple of records, like most bands, you can listen to their material and be like, "Yes, I have that record collection, as well. I'm influenced by that record." You can hear all of the influences and the things that have helped mold that band creatively. But after a while, the bands I like at least, they try to develop their own thing. I would aspire to that with this band — to transcend what we're influenced by and try to develop something that's all our own sound, our own statement.
I've only been with the new record a week and a half or so, but that's what I'm enjoying about Path of Totality. Like you said, I could hear everything you guys probably listened to on Winter Hours, and I enjoyed the record. But I kind of forgot about it after a while. On Path of Totality, I'm hearing all of the disparate influences coming together much more cleanly. That's what I'm more interested in when it comes to metal. I think there are a lot of bands that do "pure" metal and can still express that in new ways. But sometimes I prefer bands like the New Zealand death metal group Ulcerate. Have you heard the new Ulcerate record?
Oh, it's amazing. I'm a huge fan of that band.
Listening to the Tombs record, I would equate it more to Ulcerate than anything else, even though both bands are going down two different paths. You both bring your music to this beautifully angular place that's, at the same time, quite straightforward.
I've been following Ulcerate for years. I don't know how I even discovered them because Ulcerate's kind of a typical death metal name. I don't necessarily think that Ulcerate has gotten that media push that some bands have, so they just sneak by a lot of people. I feel fortunate that I was able to discover them.
What exactly is the "path of totality"?
It's a lunar eclipse term. During an occultation and the sun's obscured by the moon, it casts a shadow on Earth. It's a channel of darkness. That's what the path of totality is.
There's a couple of books that I've read in the past couple years that talk about occultation, lunar eclipses, and the primal sense of dread and primal fear. You react to that like an animal — you can't intellectualize the sun disappearing. The early-man version of your brain reacts to that.
It's not a break-up album. There's no political stance, there's no commentary on the Obama administration or the Bush administration. There's nothing like that. It's just delving into feeling and things that have resonated with me. In a more esoteric way, that might relate to my life.
I read David Lynch's book, Catching the Big Fish, and he talks about transcendental meditation, diving deep into his subconscious and pulling out the inspirations for his films. I'll paraphrase this, but one time he was being interviewed and someone asked him about some specific scene in a film. And all he was able to come up with was: "I put my hands on the hood of my car and the warmth that I felt from the hood of the car inspired the scene." That was really heavy. That's how I've been trying to write songs and lyrics. Without any ego, I go into the subconscious that I have and pull out ideas from that as opposed to being caught up in your everyday life.
I don't know that that really answers your question, because I don't think that the album is about any specific thing. If there is any kind of message that I want to send with the music, it's that religion and money are the bane of humanity. I mean, any religion. Being a Satanist is very trendy these days, especially in the black metal community. That's just equally as bad as being a Christian, in my opinion. Embracing nothing and being an individual is where true strength is in, because you don't have the distractions of these constructs to rely on. You have to stand on your own two feet and deal with the world. And now I'm superimposing what I want the lyrics to be about.
Do you respond more to intensity in metal rather than winking in metal?
I think that I'm an enemy of winking in metal. Irony has its place. There are some French authors who use irony very well. But when you're doing as something as visceral as metal, I don't think there's too much room for that sort of thing. That's just my personal opinion. There are tons of people out there who love music that is fun. They like to have a pizza party and listen to whatever. That's their thing.
However, there are bands that I enjoy like Municipal Waste. I think they're more than just a wink-wink band. They're actually great musicians, and they write great songs. The guys in that band have been working hard for a really long time. They're at the forefront of the thrash revival.
"Silent World" is the most melodic track that I've heard from Tombs, both in pacing and in vocal delivery. I know your background is hardcore and this record is vocally diverse, but this is first time I've heard you sing almost an entire song.
In all facets of my life, I try to not to get comfortable with things and push myself forward. Intellectually, physically, creatively — once you feel comfortable in one particular spot, then it's time to move onto some other things. I mean, Glenn Danzig, the guy can sing. I've always admired that. I'm a huge Misfits/Samhain/Danzig fan. Halfway through the writing process of Path of Totality, I was like, "You know what, man? I feel comfortable doing typical vocal things that I was doing most of my life, and now I want to try something new." So I worked really hard at it, and I'm still not 100 percent comfortable, but I feel like I've accomplished something. It's something I enjoy doing and want to do more of in the future.
That said, what is "Silent World" about?
"Silent World" is a meditation on the apocalypse. There's a book called The World Without Us — what would happen if there were no people? How long would it take for the cities to become completely overgrown and reclaimed by nature? But things like that are already happening in Detroit. [Laughs.] Also, what events in society would precipitate that? Some of the imagery I like to fall back upon from Revelation — you know, the book of Revelation is some of the best reading you can ever do when it comes to intense brutality.
It's some of the most metal writing on Earth, as far as I'm concerned.
Yeah, man. It's really like a psychedelic, dark voyage. A lot of the recent lyrical imagery has come from that. I read a lot about that and pagan ideas. I don't embrace that as a religion, but I think some of the concepts are very interesting.
It's not so much the end of the world as it is the end of a particular era. That's what the Mayan calendar is about. The Mayans weren't saying that [in] the year 2012 the world was going to end; it just means that this particular cycle is coming to an end and there's going to be another cycle after that. Even the book of Revelation — after the apocalypse, there's a Golden Age, allegedly. Maybe the Golden Age is a world without humans and some other life form will dominate.