[Please note: Click play above to stream Vargariis in full. It’s out Dec. 4 on Soulseller Records. Thanks to Tombstones and Soulseller for letting me host the stream.]
It may or may not be right to call such barbarity progressive, but there is definitely a sense of growth in Vargariis, the new full-length from Norwegian trio Tombstones. Released by Soulseller Records, it’s their fourth long-player — something I also said about late-2013’s Red Skies and Dead Eyes (review here) — and finds the lineup of guitarist/vocalist Bjørn-Viggo Godtland, bassist/vocalist Ole Christian Helstad and drummer Markus Støle in an entirely more brutal, vicious era. Granted, the rather sizable wall of fuzz in Godtland and Helstad‘s tones remains, but they’ve shifted the context in which that wall is constructed, and Vargariis‘ six-track/56-minute run is made simultaneously broader and more oppressive by flourishes of sludge and black metal extremism, as on “The Dark High,” which starts side B, or “Oceans of Consciousness” right before it.
On one side or the other, each track hovers around the nine-minute mark in runtime, but what Tombstones do with that time is varied in aesthetic despite being universally dark appropriate to the tones of the album’s cover art. Like the release before it, Vargariis was recorded live, tracked by Joona Hassinen at at Studio Underjord in Norrköping, Sweden (Audun Strype mastered), but the two are very different in terms of concept and execution, Tombstones having grown thanks to some considerable roadtime the last couple years into a more patient, sonically ambitious and lethally grooving outfit, willing and capable to bend the genre of doom to suit their purposes rather than the other way around.
They start with a slow-motion pummel in “Barren Fields,” which seems to nod at Conan in its tablesetting opening riff before shifting into more hypnotic fare. For a release so aggressive on the whole, it doesn’t seem appropriate to think of Vargariis‘ leadoff track as easing the listener into the rest of what’s to come, but a big function of “Barren Fields” seems to be in establishing a baseline — also a bassline; that roll is thick — on which the rest of the songs continue to build. Godtland and Helstad trade vocals effectively as Støle, who makes his first studio appearance with the band here, bashes away beneath the morass, a midsection break providing a breather before a quickened ending movement grows more and more headbang-worthy as it thrusts toward an inevitable conclusion. Bass and drums start the semi-title-track, “And When the Heathen Strive, Vargariis Rise,” and the snare continues to be a punctuating factor through an extended intro and into a punishing slowdown of corresponding screams and growls that sets up a stretch of chugging, abrasive sludge topped with screams, moving into roaring shouts, Tombstones clearly having as much fun toying with the instrumental back and forth as that in the vocals.
There’s not much by way of hope to be found in any of it, but the guitar takes just a touch of brightness to its tone in the final third before a sudden drop-off in the drums brings about a quick fade and the blasting, charred-black opening of “Oceans of Consciousness” to stamp it out. They don’t keep up the onslaught for the entire 10:14 (the longest runtime), but play again with tradeoffs and heathen and sludge nod before all the bombast and gutturalism crashes to a halt at about 5:20 in and they begin the linear build that will consume the rest of the track with minimalist rumble and percussive gruel. Even in the quietest reaches, “Oceans of Consciousness” is filthy, and the lead that marks the beginning of the last minute is likewise, but by the time they get there, Tombstones‘ plunder is long-since established and the only thing to do is sit back and be impressed at how they manage to make mud so dense flow so well.
Vargariis is a definitive step forward from Red Skies and Dead Eyes because where that album played one side off another somewhere between stoner and doom impulses — and did it well, I’ll add — Vargariis flagrantly refuses to be bound by those or other constrictions, and where the predecessor worked its two sides with a duality in accord with its title, Vargariis is multi-faceted throughout and cohesive in spite of which element might be forward at any given moment. Even for appearing on a band’s fourth record, that cohesion is an impressive feat in “Oceans of Consciousness,” and the second half of Vargariis continues to build outward from there, “The Dark High” conjuring darkened swirl early on, breaking in the middle and finishing with more uptempo push à la “When the Heathen Strive, Vargariis Rise” as Støle distinguishes himself on drums and a long-sustained scream reminds of how effective harsh vocals can be when put to the right use. In addition to supplying a surprising dual-vocal hook, “Underneath the Earth” also brings about the most crushing tones on offer early on before shifting after six minutes — via standalone drums — into a fuzzier build that closes out.
That fuzzier vibe holds firm as the drums lead the way into “Pyre of the Cloth,” which is something of a further departure from the material before it in terms of its overall affect, though the oppressive heft is certainly a factor, particularly in the faster parts of the first half. There’s something psychedelic lurking beneath the surface ooze of “Pyre of the Cloth,” however, that isn’t in songs like “The Dark High,” and the closer locks in a central groove even as it rolls its way past excruciatingly slow sludge and higher-speed chugging Sleepism, ultimately finishing on the latter, and that winds up being the uniting factor holding it together. Like the bulk of the album before it, “Pyre of the Cloth” works structurally to hold together material that’s deceptively broad beyond its superficial drive toward the extreme, and most importantly, it shows Tombstones four albums in as a band whose palette is continuing to expand and who are clearly making the most of the experience they’re gaining along their way.