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A Pocket-Sized Sun: Tiamat’s “Wildhoney” Turns 25


Heartache, suicide, death: these are the traits we associate gothic music with and often in its more grandiloquent cousin gothic metal we see crude parodies of these traits. There is a stereotype of female vocalists strapped tight with corsets and gowns, men with long, straightened black hair, and the dull glimmer of cheap keyboard patches. We don’t need to name names, but there are a number of bands that furnish us with this image, first as tragedy and then as farce, presenting an aesthetic package that is a crude caricature of gothic music and, frankly, a piss-poor variant of heavy metal, attempting to combine both but satisfying the image of neither.

And so for the uninitiated, reading that Tiamat‘s Wildhoney is perhaps the most esteemed of the genre within the broader canon of heavy metal may cause some alarm. Certainly the style must possess at least a few standout records, one must think, otherwise why would it have survived for so long? After all, even the most stridently goofy variants of black and power metal, two of the more (ahem) theatrical spaces within heavy metal, have great halls of canonical works. But Wildhoney is curious as a standout of its form precisely because of how little it actually resembles its peers, even including works of its own creator’s. Tiamat’s body of work, one more internally varied than one might immediately presume given they are all descriptively called “gothic metal” by almost any music critical body available, has precious little in terms of duplicates of the ideas present on Wildhoney and none with the conceptual arch of the record. And yet Wildhoney is not an album without precedent. It is simply precedent that is found elsewhere, outside of anticipated locations.

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Tiamat started their career as Treblinka, a black/death metal band out of Sweden formed in the mid 1980s. These were the years before the strong codification of death metal and many years before the great divorce of black and death metal players and the early Treblinka material shows this. The songs thrash and rumble like a meeting of Slayer, Venom, and Hellhammer, the youthful energy of the players often overwhelming their limited technical skills at the time. These recordings, once scurrilous and obscure tapes duplicated and passed on, are now widely available, but it is not hard to see why they were buried for so long; after the name change to Tiamat and the proper recording of their first studio album Sumerian Cry, all of the best ideas were pilfered and used, offering little reason to refer back to that period. And yet Sumerian Cry fits in the grand scheme far less like the debut album of Tiamat and more as the final recording of that initial conception of the band as an exceptionally dark and satanic death metal band.

The next two albums, The Astral Sleep and Clouds, show the beginnings of the group proper. Specifically, they are the moment when the band traded in their particular blend of black and death metal, already on the cultural decline by the time they were crafting their sophomore record, for an approach that leaned more into their knack for the more theatrical elements available in both satanic extreme metal and heavy metal more generally. The group added keyboards and, beyond that, instrumental exploration; gone were the songs that thrashed and galloped and plodded along, replaced with pieces that were largely mid-tempo as a means of allowing for broader sonic excursions. They were peculiar albums and certainly imperfect, landing a notch below the quality level that parallel groups like Anathema and Katatonia were finding on their own combinations of death, doom, and more progressive gothic elements. And then everything snapped into place.

It is important when approaching Wildhoney to understand how precisely its gothic effect is achieved. It’s cheap and easy to imagine a group donning a set of fake plastic fangs and an overly-thick Halloween cloak and dressing the recording studio in candelabras, but Tiamat was far from this mental image. Their approach to gothic rock was less those stereotypes, even the more accomplished variants of those stereotypical images in superlative groups like Sisters of Mercy and Clan of Xymox, instead erring toward the avant-garde, neo-classical, and progressive soundscapes of groups like Dead Can Dance, This Mortal Coil, and especially mid-period The Cure.

Disintegration clearly played a large part in the construction of Wildhoney, particularly in its development of gothic soundscapes as lush beds of space-filling prog-influenced sonic beds rather than the stark and post-punk-oriented gothic rock of other similar groups. It is strange when listening back to the record how very little of it actually coheres to a heavy metal idiom at all, leaning so far into what had previously been brief musical digressions and interludes that it effectively becomes an album-length suite of connective tissue. This would be an issue were the album not beautiful, but the group (at this point in their career, at least) was wise enough to know that gothic rock despite its dourness is motivated more purely by beauty, one that can support either joy or sorrow depending on the inflection.


Certain tracks like “A Pocket Size Sun” and “25th Floor” feel like overt nods to psychedelia, mirroring The Cure’s later gothic rock developments inspired by the same material. Tiamat openly cited Pink Floyd in the media surrounding the album, a reference that is perhaps over-emphasized by the group and the media attempting to find a quick and big sonic referent, but there are certainly points of comparison to be made between the way the album works as a greater sequence and Pink Floyd’s earlier attempts at song suites such as “The Man” and “The Journey”, a duo of long-form pieces that would eventually furnish material for Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and Animals. Strangely, clear heavy metal riffs, while present on a number of songs, only feel psychically present early on, especially in “Whatever That Hurts” and “The Ar.” It seems even the group knew these tracks were perhaps better as early entries on the album, a hook for listeners from the era when the band riffed harder, before lulling them into a progressively more neo-classical approach to the genre.

Johan Edlund, more a poet than a vocal virtuoso, wisely declined to indulge too greatly in goth rock vocal cliches, deciding instead to more frequently grimly intone lyrics like a death metal Nick Cave or gently croon, a choice that works well with the material given.

The first time you sit with the record, you may be underwhelmed. This is okay; it is not uncommon for Tiamat to do that to people. But then there is a lingering tickle in the back of the head. The songs are imperfect, sometimes a bit too cloying, sometimes overlong, sometimes monotonous and repetitive. But you find yourself humming them. You go to find the song you have a portion of stuck in your head but cannot recall its name; you’d let the album play all the way through before and didn’t look down. So you start the album anew to find it, somewhere inside. Once more, you find yourself lost in the swirling lysergic sea, and only when the record ends do you realize you forgot to see what song it was you keep cycling through your head. So, a few days later, you begin the record again.

Wildhoney isn’t a landmark record because it is perfect. There are transitional records by Anathema and Katatonia when it comes to early death/doom and gothic doom that are better, with both the death metal riffs being nastier and the doom being richer. And, for more traditional gothic rock, there is material that captures that strange and ethereal edge of prog, psychedelia, and the bleak depths of despair in more vibrant fashion, groups like early Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil, and the kings of the style, the aforementioned The Cure. Hell, even Tiamat themselves failed to live up to the promise of Wildhoney, dabbling the same frustrating attempts at industrial and the more cliched approaches to gothic metal that the genre is more typically known for. (Notable: Wildhoney‘s followup A Deeper Kind of Slumber is a fitting stylistic follow-through and arguably a more accomplished record, but one far less celebrated.)

What makes Wildhoney such a landmark record was a matter of time and place, catching the ear of underground extreme metal fans and pointing them headlong in the direction of the incredible body of neo-psychedelia that are the great records of 1980s gothic rock. Beyond that, even when the material present isn’t without flaw, it has an undeniable charisma. It bleeds out fractal and free, uninhibited by pretense or architecture. There is little to the record that is mechanical, with each riff and sonic idea moving by the stern hand of a producer looking for another pop hit but by a young band earnestly removing the self-imposed shackles of stylistic constraints and genre tags to explore the music that more suitably resonates with their hearts. And, most importantly, it’s beautiful.

If we’re honest, many of the early Pink Floyd records aren’t exactly perfect either (though they would come to have that undeniable perfect streak) and The Cure didn’t produce a perfect record until Pornography, an album tied for greatest gothic rock triumph of all time next to the group’s own Disintegration. But the charm of music generally and psychedelic music more specifically, of which gothic music is a subset, is not perfection but the earnestness and honesty of its explorations. Wildhoney is uninhibited, roaming, sweet. It is dew-scented; it is alluring. This matters more than perfection. And it’s why an imperfect album can still be worth returning to 25 years after its release; there is something undefinable there, desirable, buried somewhere inside, if only…

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