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The Delicious Terror of Tribulation’s “Down Below”

Tribulation Down Below

Tribulation have come a long way in the past few years. They started humbly enough, releasing their debut The Horror to precisely the right amount of acclaim. Death metal fans rejoiced for a solid slice of throwback Swedish death metal that pulled from horror cinema world. They were the opener for a tour with Watain and In Solitude to support their second record, The Formulas of Death, where they started to more seriously turn heads with their efflorescence of psych and prog influence. Songs unfurled and took on a frilly, theatrical flair while still keeping in spirit with the dissociated, ghoulish atmosphere. With the follow up, 2015’s Children of the Night, they managed to both shirk clear genre constraints (blending psychedelia, prog, black metal, classic rock, art rock, death metal, goth and more) while also delivering a crystallized song-oriented and tightly paced sub-60 minute album experience, rightfully topping many end of year lists.

The most immediate aspect of Down Below is that, for the first time in their career, Tribulation hasn’t felt the need to radically change their sound. This is a blessing; Children of the Night proved the worth of this formulation for the group, the surprising cover of a song by the Offspring (!!!) on the Melancholia EP maxi-single, and the increased prominence of groups like Ghost and the dearly-departed In Solitude proved an unforeseeable commercial viability to music so dramatic, dark, and deeply metal. All of the playful genre components that made Children of the Night so immediately cinematic and rich are present here. What’s more, the well-paced end of the record doesn’t feel tiring as a listener, offering implication that this won’t be the last we hear of this style from Tribulation, a thing worthy of celebration. Tribulation strip back metal to its most elemental form, dissecting death metal and black metal to the primordial cosmos of the darker fringes of psychedelia, prog, classic rock and art pop. These were the foundations for bands like Judas Priest and Coven and Black Sabbath and Witchfinder General way back when; all bound by a tragic, morose and deeply gothic sense of horror, terror and grandiose beauty that underpins metal and differentiates it from rock, punk, and other proximal genres.

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Down Below reveals its unique character as a substantially darker and more morose record than its predecessor. Where tracks such as “Strange Gateways Beckon” and “Music from the Other” from Children of the Night felt like a celebratory dance of some primordial Satan rejoicing in the proto-form of metal and evil to come, Down Below on tracks such as “Subterranea” and “Here Be Dragons” is fixated on the melancholy of death and the world, portraying Hell sonically, emotionally, and lyrically not so much as a place where demons and devils are free but a place where they are punished and brutalized. The tone is somber and gothic, but not in a manner similar to recent concepts by Bell Witch or other doomy brethren; Tribulation’s cinematic flair still remains, allowing room on tracks like “Nightbound” for shimmering arpeggios set to synth pads and ringing U2-esque chords. The goal of this music is not just tone and timbre but also size, feeling like entering the maudlin cathedral of a morose organist in the midst of a lament (the title of the opening track, fittingly enough) more than wasting away in a crypt.

Down Below’s grandiosity of spirit offers the greatest connection back to its predecessor and also outline what makes this record and this band so successful compared to their peers who ply the same horror/occult traditional metal wares. Their choice of cover art, stagewear and general aesthetic plays into this as well; Tribulation offers an enveloping experience, not unlike Ghost at their best, and for this all elements must be in place. The deep red of the sky behind the black gargoyle scrawled in German expressionist style, not unlike a film poster for Lang’s Mabuse, feels a fitting image to pair with the Mellotron and grim lyrics about a consciousness collapsing into the unknown darkness of death given in the closing track “Here Be Dragons.”

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There is a looseness to the record, a sense of humans playing music and charting that course organically rather than by algorithm or genre restriction, but a looseness circumscribed and justified by an aesthetic completeness and sense of care. It is a sense of care parallel to that of similar aesthetic completists Spirit Adrift and Inter Arma, who over the past few records have seen their profiles rightfully catapulted due not only to the quality of their music but to the completeness of what they offer artistically, a trait that most iconic and prestigious artists share in general.

Tribulation have a long road ahead of them with this style and their keen eye for aesthetic details in both sonics and design. One imagines this is not a dead end for them but another step in what appears to be a long and tall stairway. Mark this now: we don’t get to see such builds often.

—Langdon Hickman

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