There’s a line from Mike Hill’s audiobook/tour diary of ANODYNE’s 2004 European tour in which the gravel-throated frontman affirms, “I will always outwork you.” In that case, Hill was referring to an incident in Germany early on during a six-week long overseas jaunt with his previous band. In actuality, however, he could have been talking about any instance between when he first picked up a guitar as a teen and the present. Whether it’s his history dating back to previous bands OTIS, ANODYNE, KING GENERATOR or VERSOMA, his ongoing solo work in VASILEK, the more recent SCORPION THRONE project or his thirteen year reign as the driving force and nerve center of post-black metal institution TOMBS, hard work is second nature and nothing will keep the guitarist/vocalist from creative endeavor and expression. And it’s not just music in which his propulsive work ethic has gleaned results: Hill also is the CEO and roast master at Savage Gold Coffee (a labelling nod to TOMBS’ 2014 album of the same name), the host/producer/creator of the Everything Went Black podcast, host and producer of Gimme Radio’s Metal Matters flagship podcast, the creator and co-host of horror podcast Necromaniacs as well as a stalwart in the print and online journalism world covering music and MMA fighting. His is, has been and always will be a life steeped in dedication and with unassailable drive in the cross hairs. And despite the world being put on pause, Hill refuses to curtail his innate determination and ongoing tenacity with the result being TOMBS emerging with the next chapter in its impressive catalog and growing legacy: the band’s fifth full-length, ‘Under Sullen Skies’.
“The week VERSOMA broke up in 2007, I started TOMBS,” he says, recalling how, characteristically, the band started before any dust was permitted to settle. “The initial rehearsals ended up being the bulk of material that showed up on the first [self-titled] EP. The intent from the beginning was to get back to playing music I wanted to hear and to not be so concerned with genre or satisfying anyone else’s desires. It was to do music on a personal level and be a reflection of the darkness I’ve felt throughout my life.”
Formed in the gritty corners of pre-gentrified Brooklyn, NY, TOMBS’ early mandate was steeped in the harshness and atonality of black metal but dosed with trace amounts of the varied influences and inspirations ingrained in Hill’s musical muscle memory by previous bands. “The canon of music TOMBS has created has spanned several different genres, but I’ve always had it my intent for there to always be a certain amount of violence and hardness lurking the background.”
Those early years delivered splits and singles, the highly revered ‘Winter Hours’ debut in 2009 and Decibel’s 2011 Album of the Year, ‘Path of Totality’. Never one to sit still, ‘Path of Totality’ was followed by appreciable and impressive amounts of touring in accordance with the lauding afforded by critics and fans and the braying of foes, which only served as fuel for Hill’s perseverance. Savage Gold came three years later after which a restless Hill began nudging TOMBS’ black metal base into territories populated by gothic and death rock artists like FIELDS OF THE NEPHILIM and SISTERS OF MERCY as well as avant-garde purveyors Caspar Brotzmann and Live Skull while never forgetting – or being able to – scrape the grime of NYC from under his fingernails. The addition of a second guitar and live keyboards/samples brought a fuller sound and allowed noise sequences and soundscapes to be brought to the live show. It was around the time of 2016 ‘All Empires Fall’ EP that TOMBS punctuated its iconoclastic spirit and thought process. Despite then-being part of the Relapse Records family, the band struck out with the intent of self-releasing the EP in order to retain as much independence as contractual obligations would allow – retaining the digital and publishing rights while eventually licensing the record back to Relapse. A one album stint in 2017 under the Metal Blade banner birthed ‘The Grand Annihilation’ into the world where TOMBS took broader and more daring steps into buffering black metal with morose melody, sullen death rock and classic METALLICA chugging. Following a parting from Metal Blade, the band – now completed by drummer Justin Spaeth, guitarist Matt Medeiros and bassist Drew Murphy, who are also 3/4ths of New Jersey death metal crew KALOPSIA – quickly found a home on Season of Mist and issued the ‘Monarchy of Shadows’ EP literally a week before the world went into Coronavirus lockdown.
“The original strategy assumed we would be on the road for most of 2020,” says Hill with a lamenting laugh. “We had a sick tour with Napalm Death planned right after the EP’s release. We were going to record the new full-length before the tour and have it come out in the fall. There was all kinds of tour talk and plans and 2020 would have been a tour-de-force of TOMBS activity in the United States and Europe. Obviously, none of that is happening, but we’re still going ahead with the record.”
Of course they are. Throw a hurdle in front of Mike Hill and he’ll never shy at rolling up his sleeves and taking on the challenge. Even with the world in shutdown mode, Hill is still brimming with enthusiasm about the input and work ethic of the current TOMBS lineup and how Spaeth, Mederios and Murphy stepped up to the plate in the creation of ‘Under Sullen Skies’.
“Everyone contributes on this record and the door has always been open for others to do so. There has always been this misconception that I’m some sort of tyrant always telling people what to do and play. The fact of the matter is that most of the time I outwork people; that’s just the way I am. No one is ever going to outwork me on any level in any area of my life and I was always coming up with material. Now, I have these maniacs in the band who are equally motivated and there’s a whole new life injected into TOMBS. That’s awesome and I love it. These days we’ll try anything and we actually write stuff and throw it out because it’s not perfect. It’s more like a writing committee, which I really appreciate. It’s not just me writing everything. It’s a big difference from ‘The Grand Annihilation’ which was basically a solo record.”
‘Under Sullen Skies’ is this lineup’s second kick at twisting black metal’s DNA around dank emotional corners, psychological turmoil and the urban underbelly all of which is unavoidably coloured and touched by the present-day status of life on this here Earth.
“The album’s title came during all this and the sort of post-apocalyptic world we’re living in,” Hill explains. “It encapsulates an overall feeling of gloom and depression which is pretty much how we’ve been living for most of this year. The title was the last piece to fall into place. I remember standing on the roof of the building I was living in at the time on a grey day and it was raining – actually, it wasn’t even raining; it was a half-assed attempt at rain! – and depressing and I just thought, ‘What a sullen sky’ and it just stuck with me.”
The album starts with “Bone Collector,” a furious blast of melodic black metal that shifts gears towards an anthemic fist-pumping slog through the goth rock-thrash metal VENN DIAGRAM. “Void Constellation” takes as many cues from Peaceville Three gloom and doom as it does the death metal stomp of OBITUARY and INCANTATION. “Descensum” mines the various well-worn parts of Ride the Lightning for influence before blasting the doors open with some startlingly spacious chromatic single-note atonality. As the album progresses, further textures and moods are employed via acoustic instrumentation and keyboards as well as sampled soundscapes all butting heads with furious second wave black metal and sly to nods to death rock heroes SISTERS OF MERCY and FIELDS OF THE NEPHILIM, all of the band’s motivations and interests being dropped into the chameleonic pair of tracks closing the album, “Sombre Ruin” and the appropriately titled “Plague Years.”
“‘Barren’ stands out as the song that’s most collaborative,” notes Hill. “Justin wrote the bulk of the riffs on that one, that sort of NWOBHM/SCORPIONS ending part is something I came up with, Matt added a bunch of guitar harmonies over it and Drew’s bass is laid thick underneath. That one is one of the biggest group efforts and one of the strongest songs on the record.
“I explore a lot of the archetypes that are used in folklore on this record, like werewolves and vampires which I’ve always been interested in, and on a song like ‘Secrets of the Black Sun’ I talk about the finite nature of our time on this planet, that nothing is really permanent and being aware of that whether as an individual or as a civilization, which I guess fits in with the pandemic and the changes that are going on. There are all kinds of other people, civilizations and creatures that have come and gone long before us and if you think about it over a long enough time span, everyone’s life expectancy goes down to zero.”
The new album not only sees Hill expanding his creative and collaborative comfort zone by wholly embracing the offerings of his band mates, but he’s also let down the drawbridge to allow folks from beyond the immediate TOMBS family to include what he describes as “mad guest spots.”
“There’s Cat Cabral, who does the spoken word piece on ‘Angel of Darkness.’ She’s not a musician per se; she’s more from the occult and witchcraft world. I’ve been friends with her for a really long time and she’s a great resource for esoteric knowledge. She’s also an actress who has done plays and commercials and been in films, so I figured she’d be the perfect person to deliver dialogue in an emotionally deep way, and be good at taking direction. Ray Suhy from SIX FEET UNDER rips the guitar solo in ‘Barren’ and that solo is its own masterpiece, in my opinion. BLACK CROWN INITIATE and former TOMBS live guitarist Andy Thomas contributed a guitar solo in ‘Void Constellation.’ Todd Stern from PSYCROPTIC plays the solo in ‘Mortem.’ Sera Timms from IDES OF GEMINI and BLACK MATH HORSEMAN does guest vocals on ‘Secrets of the Black Sun.’ We’ve got INTEGRITY’s Dwid Hellion singing the chorus on ‘The Hunger’ and BLACK ANVIL’s Paul Delaney also doing a couple of verses on ‘Angel of Darkness.’ So, yeah, there are a bunch of people on there and it’s like a community effort which I enjoy. I like involving people I respect and having them be a part of the whole thing.”
After spending his entire adult life navigating the pitfalls and pratfalls of the industry for expressive and creative opportunity, Hill has amassed an impressive legacy, one that ‘Under Sullen Skies’ contributes to admirably and irreverently. Like most, the extreme music underground lifer and veteran is probably justified in approaching the future with very muted optimism, but while the world works at screwing its head back on straight, Hill is going to do what he wants to do as well as he possibly can. Uncertainty may reign at the moment, but Hill and TOMBS are still going to do their thing and will be content to please themselves in the process. If anyone else happens to be along for the ride, then welcome aboard.
“’Under Sullen Skies’ is a dark and introspective album,” he asserts. “It’s not a happy record that anyone is going to use to get pumped up on a Friday night. We wanted to pull out the stops, go full-on and make a nice body of work. I could care less if anyone likes the band or not because I’ve been through so many ups and downs with this thing that I don’t give a fuck if people enjoy the music. I know I like it, I know the guys in the band like it and we’re just rocking and rolling. This record and the EP came out about as close as I could imagine to what I have in my brain about how this band should sound. The whole trajectory of the band has had each record never quite hitting, but ‘Monarchy of Shadows’ and ‘Under Sullen Skies’ have both really come out how I envisioned the songs to be.”