Death Metal Rebels Tomb Mold Choose the Path of Most Resistance | Pitchfork

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Death Metal Rebels Tomb Mold Choose the Path of Most Resistance | Pitchfork

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As anticipation grows among the tightly packed audience at a recent Tomb Mold show in Toronto, the band’s self-curated, between-set playlist hits on a smooth, familiar voice. It belongs to Billy Joel, whose 1989 ode to manic depression, “I Go to Extremes,” elicits solemn nods and gentle foot-tapping from an excitable crowd of metal heads in vintage Suffocation T-shirts.

However incongruous it may seem, Joel’s song is an apt choice for a trio known for conjuring wild swings of emotions in their music, and also for pushing themselves to uncomfortable places with each new record. The song appears among a wide range of artists that Tomb Mold picked to play over the loudspeakers at Lee’s Palace, where the group is celebrating the release of their triumphant fourth album, The Enduring Spirit. As the line for merch stretches toward the exits, the mosh-ready crowd is treated to everything from sophistipop legends Prefab Sprout to Herbie Hancock to solo Jerry Garcia.

Talking to the band in the green room before their set, it’s clear how this voracious approach informs every decision they make. Posing a simple question to the group—guitarists Derrick Vella and Payson Power, and drummer and vocalist Max Klebanoff—is just as likely to evolve into a philosophical debate, a litany of heady inside-jokes, or a dead-serious reflection on friendship, DIY ethics, or mortality. When I ask about the early reception to the new album, released via longtime label 20 Buck Spin, the band takes a decidedly zoomed-out perspective.

“We’re popular enough that I know our music is going to affect a lot of people, and that’s a very humbling thing,” Power says. “If you derive any joy from something we’ve made, that rules. And we can never forget it, because the band won’t last forever.”

Vella quickly cuts him off with a laugh: “Says you, bro!”

“Well,” Power says, “we are going to die.”

Where some death metal bands might internalize this truth with music that turns our demise into a gory haunted house, Tomb Mold have increasingly pushed to create something more like a planetarium: a space that feels vast and awe-inspiring, even as destruction looms ominously from above. Stylistically, their records exist within the genre of death metal, where the riffs are as heavy as wet sand, and the music proceeds with the hellbent momentum of a horror-movie climax. But they use everything in their power to expand outward, whether that means offering inspired commentary on death and aging in their lyrics, opting for a jazzy guitar tone instead of something more corroded, or writing a solo that one member compares (favorably) to the Entertainment Tonight theme song.

After introducing themselves as a studio-only project in the mid 2010s, they released three excellent projects in as many years, culminating in 2019’s gloomy Planetary Clairvoyance, an album whose ambient interludes and unrelenting darkness made it stand apart from the band’s old-school contemporaries.

That breakthrough resulted in a busy tour schedule and numerous offers from bigger labels. But instead of capitalizing on their success, Tomb Mold decided to take a break. Each of the three members has his own fruitful side project: Klebanoff works primarily in harsh noise and drone; Power leads the mathy, melodic rock project Daydream Plus; and Vella started the duo Dream Unending, whose emotionally intense epics captured a softer side of his songwriting.

Around summer 2020, in the thick of the pandemic, Vella slowly began writing what would become The Enduring Spirit. “I was running a lot in the sunshine and listening to the brighter death metal albums: Unquestionable Presence by Atheist, Symbolic by Death, Traced in Air by Cynic,” he recalls. With a laugh, he thinks back to his bandmates’ response when he first sent them a new batch of Tomb Mold demos: “‘SO MELLOW,’ in all caps.” To match the spirit of the music, Klebanoff aimed for a different tone in his lyrics. “I wanted it to be uplifting,” he explains, noting inspiration from the coming-of-age 1980s anime Aura Battler Dunbine.

The result is the band’s most beautiful album, with songs like “Will of Whispers” introducing a newly textural side to their riffs. When they perform the track live that night, they form a small huddle on the corner of the stage, locking eyes and bouncing with a momentum that feels more suited for a blissed-out jam band than a mosh pit. (To be clear, there is a mosh pit.)

This music, which balances their heaviest performances with their most complicated songwriting, also proved to be extremely difficult to learn. Vella says he actively aimed to write parts that he couldn’t play unless he improved as a guitarist over the course of the album’s recording, and each band member has stories of being driven to the limit while nailing down the tracks. Klebanoff contemplated quitting drums multiple times; Power once bit his thumb so hard in frustration that he drew blood. When the band returns to the stage for an encore at Lee’s Palace, Vella emerges with a nylon string guitar and proceeds to dazzle the crowd with a gorgeous, fingerpicked performance that suggests an entirely different type of virtuosity. (He says an LP of solo compositions is in the works.) “As I get older, I get better, and every record is more satisfying,” Vella says.

By now Tomb Mold have heard every possible criticism of their music from death metal purists—even the T-shirts and shorts they wore on the cover of Decibel last month sparked an online debate. For Power, knocks on their physical appearance can still get under his skin: ‘‘‘These guys look too normal!’” he says in a mocking voice. When I point out to Power that he is wearing a Springsteen shirt to a sold-out metal show, he jokes, “He’s a black metal superion!” To which Vella adds, not incorrectly, “He was making records at home before any of those bands were.”

Despite the naysayers, Tomb Mold have already become a touchstone for a new generation of metal bands. During the release show, their set is preceded by two of the most exciting acts in the genre: Outer Heaven, an ambitious group from Douglassville, Pennsylvania, and Undeath, the riotous upstarts from Rochester, New York. During Undeath’s set, the only time frontman Alexander Jones gets earnest—between his commands to “fuck this place up”—is to thank Vella for shouting out his band on a podcast, back when they only had a demo to their name. Similarly, the most excited Vella gets during our conversation is when he notes that a young band recently named themselves after an early Tomb Mold song called “Gored Embrace.” “That’s fucked up,” he says, visibly proud.

For Tomb Mold, this is how they define their legacy: through the reach of their records and the connections their fans draw to them. They’ve turned down attention from bigger labels (“Those deals are for, like, four albums—bitch, I might be dead after the next one,” Power jokes) and voted against joining any big metal package tours, choosing only to play the gigs they can all agree upon. “When all these bands tour so much, I’m like, ‘Couldn’t you just be writing songs?’” Vella laughs.

Part of this mentality comes from their DIY realities. They each still work a day job; they’ve never hired a manager; and they define their agent’s job as “turning down 95 percent of what gets offered.” Instead, they put their focus on writing music together, and encouraging each other to pursue other projects in the hope that it will inspire the band further. “We’re gonna do a lot of cool stuff in life,” Vella says. “But nothing will ever be as sick as this band.”

Once again the conversation gets heady. “As of recently, I’m a little bit obsessed with mortality,” says Power, whose father passed away during the making of The Enduring Spirit. “He was a writer, so I have all his work. Now at 38, I feel so glad to have a few things under my belt that I’m proud of. For me, success is the stuff we make—the thing that’s tangible forever.”

Death Metal Rebels Tomb Mold Choose the Path of Most Resistance | Pitchfork

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