Tomb Mold's 'The Enduring Spirit' Is an Unstoppable Ascension
Published Sep 22, 2023Death metal is metal's most overbearing and blunt subgenre. Often depicting cruelty, violence, disease and cynicism, the genre has a reputation as being nothing but brute force, gore and technicality to the uninitiated. It's undoubtedly what some people envision when they think of "metal," and most egregiously, it can be seen as dumb because it's so aggressive, unintelligible and dense. This is, of course, bullshit.
For those who think that there's no room for subtlety or nuance in death metal (I'm speaking to you gatekeeping purists out there), you need only look at some of the genre's founders to see that evolution is necessary and stagnation leads to disillusionment. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with a Cannibal Corpse or a Deicide, there is also something to be said for change, variety, and progression (ahem, prog, if you will). This is where Toronto's Tomb Mold, our grotesque saviours, come in.
As early leaders of the New Wave of Old School Death Metal (aka. NWOSDM, which includes such diverse bands as Horrendous, Gatecreeper, Blood Incantation and Necrot, among a multitude of others), Tomb Mold have been touted for their tight riffs, complex arrangements and oozing imagery, harkening back to metal's pre "post-" days.
Since their debut full-length, 2017's Primordial Malignity, the Toronto three-piece — drummer/vocalist Max Klebanoff, guitarist/bassist Derrick Vella, and guitarist Payson Power — have released two acclaimed and insalubrious slabs of pounding, unpretentious death metal: 2018's insta-classic Manor of Infinite Forms, and 2019's Planetary Clairvoyance. The band has kept relatively quiet in terms of new music since then, self-releasing just one EP, 2022's fantastic but all too short Aperture of Body.
But now, four years after their last full length, the band returns for another breathtaking journey through the cosmos with The Enduring Spirit, an intergalactic seven-song masterclass in atmospheric brutality, vicious textures and the ever-expanding unknown.
From the thunderous drum intro of "The Perfect Memory (Phantasm of Aura)," to the crushing growl that completes the 11+ minute (!!!) album closer "The Enduring Spirit of Calamity," the band have clearly been practicing their respective instruments. Klebanoff's drumming is tremendous as always, but it's his vocal performance that's of particular note. While he doesn't deviate from the harsh vocals, his bone-rattling growl has been shaped into a muscular force, which he punctuates with piercing screams at choice moments throughout the album. The bass is also shockingly audible, and Vella does a fantastic job of giving the instrument some well-deserved life. It bounces and thumps and rumbles without simply copying the guitars (as death metal bass is usually wont to do). It's a character unto itself, adding texture and power to every song. These dynamics are present thanks in no small part to Sean Pearson and Arthur Rizk, who recorded and mixed/mastered the album, respectively.
You also can't discuss this band or this album without mentioning the incredible dual guitar work of Vella and Power. It would take pages upon pages of writing to dissect the various tones and textures they apply to their riffs, yet it never feels like a robotic barrage; rather, it's organic and refined, displaying the breadth of their musical knowledge. It's challenging without being patronizing, complex without being inhospitable.
"Will of Whispers" starts with jazzy, chorus-inflected guitars and a groove that would fit comfortably on a Mahavishnu Orchestra album before the distortion kicks in. During the song's bridge, which floats on a skeletal drum pattern and unsettling intersecting guitar lines, Klebanoff delivers a guttural sound that reaches into the very depths of the soul/body/heart/earth/universe/all of it, and prepares you for the devastation that follows. And yet, even in the song's intense outro, the band doesn't pummel the listener. They deliver us unto the light through a wistful sonic landscape, transforming nightmares into dreams, before an almost imperceptible transition takes us to one of the album's most putrid riffs, the pounding, dripping "Fate's Tangled Thread."
Unsurprisingly, Tomb Mold's music has the capacity to bludgeon, disintegrating one's ears and frontal lobes with an onslaught of spacey, dextrous riffs, double kicks and Klebanoff's ungodly vocals. And yet, for all their might and power, Tomb Mold's best quality is their lack of fear: they aren't afraid to show their non-metal influences, to be calm and experimental and unapologetically vulnerable. Far from seeing vulnerability as a weakness, the band's music relishes in the power of hope; it is a plea, a sacrament to and for a better, more empathetic world, and these "un-metal" tendencies are all over The Enduring Spirit, both in sound and lyric.
While the band doesn't shy away from violence or viscera, they also don't revel in suffering or butchery; instead, they plead with humanity, asking questions and pondering our desires, our actions, our very purpose. It wouldn't be a stretch to assume that psychedelics — and with them, the power of the unconscious — play a key role in Tomb Mold's music, and the band doesn't shy away from the connection: there are giant, mushroom-like plants and shapes on the album's cover (exquisitely painted by artist and collaborator Jesse Jacobi), and the swirling textures at times feel like the wandering yet determined actions of a mind mid-trip.
In "Flesh as Armour," the album's humanistic heart, Klebanoff sings of rapture, of change, of healing. The song is a rallying scream against pessimism and self-doubt, with Klebanoff advocating for the healing power of rest. Later, he asks, "What is it that keeps us from drowning?" with the answer being ourselves, our minds and bodies, which aren't weak or helpless. "Let us be gentle when questioning ourselves," he bellows, a powerful and freeing statement, one that eschews death metal's tendency to be combative or misanthropic in favour of something more holistic, compassionate, patient.
The aforementioned closer, "The Enduring Spirit of Calamity," continues this hopeful tone. For over five minutes, the guitars and bass tangle and swirl, the cymbals crash and everything is echoey and drenched in reverb. But then, when the shimmering instruments drop out and a heavy, spinning, palm-muted riff begins the final fray, you know the explosion is coming. When it does, it's truly overwhelming. It could very well be the first time that a death metal song chokes you up. Embrace it.
During the finale, Klebanoff reminds us that "Nothing is free to those who shield their hearts / All is free to those who bear their hearts," perhaps an allusion and subversion of Proverbs 4:23, which reads, "Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it." For Tomb Mold, the exact opposite is true: you'll only be free — to care, to love, to feel — if you open your heart. You can't be afraid to sin, to get hurt, to live, so don't close your heart to the world. Once again, waterworks.
As the instruments crunch and squeal, intensifying to their inevitable breaking point, a bass riff rises like the up-stretched humanoid statue on the cover at the 10:33 mark. As if out of nowhere, like a portal to the future, the riff appears, descending, bountiful, and magnificent. It is the enduring spirit, rising above the drums and guitars into eternity. At the end of "The Perfect Memory," Klebanoff — through a cacophony of growls and screams — asks, "Tell me, what is eternity?" Here, this small, seemingly insignificant riff answers that question: it's the little things, the smallest of moments, that hold the most power.
Experimental and intense, polygonal and contradictory, extreme and beautiful and frightening, The Enduring Spirit is the apex of everything Tomb Mold have been working toward: a monolithic, dizzying achievement. You have to let yourself be absorbed into the maelstrom, but if you do, you'll see that it's one of the most worthwhile and inspiring metal listens in a very long time.
The Enduring Spirit is a comet, delivered from somewhere deep within the cosmos and channeled through this unassuming band of musical iconoclasts. Artistic, intelligent (but not overly intellectualized), and executed with a skill and care many of us can only hope to comprehend, The Enduring Spirit is this year's best metal album, and one of the best albums of 2023, period, full stop. That's it, that's all. And now, all together: GRAAGHHGHHHGHH!!! (20 Buck Spin)