Album Review: Ahab, The Coral Tombs

ahab the coral tombs

What might legitimately be called a ‘return’ since it’s their first studio album in eight years, Ahab‘s The Coral Tombs (on Napalm Records) brings the perhaps-inevitable meeting between the nautically-themed Heidelberg, Germany, death-doom metallers and the subject matter of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. That rare bit of sci-fi that’s become part of the literary canon, the tale of Captain Nemo, Professor Pierre Arronax, and the undersea vessel Nautilus is a story that’s been told and retold, adapted across media that didn’t even exist when it was written, and interpreted by the public domain since its first serialized publication in 1869-1870, the story and the band — whose most recent studio album was 2015’s The Boats of the Glen Carrig, also based on a 1907 novel by William Hope Hodgson; does nobody write about the ocean anymore? — are well suited to each other.

Here, the sound is bleak, extreme, and duly funereal for an offering with ‘tombs’ in its title, and in the mournful severity of a song like “Mobilis in Mobilii,” which is third in the seven-song sequence after “Prof. Arronax’s Descent Into the Vast Oceans,” featuring a guest vocal contribution from Chris Dark of Köln’s Ultha, and “Colossus of the Liquid Graves,” which is the shortest inclusion at 6:25 and a work of lurching, consuming death resolved in its own dirge march in its second half, The Coral Tombs brings an inescapable sense of all-sides crushing pressure. Both because of the band’s stated theme, their obvious awareness of their own intentions five albums and 18 years into their tenure, and the general nature of doom itself — they are by no means the only ones to relate slow, undulating riffs to salty waves — it’s somewhat hard to get away from watery metaphors, but even in its quietest, creepier stretches, the purposefully overwhelming 66 minutes of The Coral Tombs is farther down than the sun goes, atmospherically speaking, and monstrous like the unknown.

A return to producer/engineer Jens Siefert at RAMA Studios in Mannheim assures that the four-piece — founding guitarists Daniel Droste (also vocals and keys) and Christian Hector, as well as bassist Stephan Wandernoth and drummer Cornelius Althammer, who, yes, has the most righteous name a drummer could possibly ask for; I do not know if he was born with it, but kudos either way — sound duly masterful in their approach, and, on the most basic level, huge. One cannot manifest the impossible reaches and deadly wondrousness of the Earth’s waters, which threaten to drown even as they hypnotize with its beauty, in minor fashion, and Ahab have been at this a while now, so it should be no surprise they know what they’re doing. The Coral Tombs‘ songs are shorter on average than were those of The Boats of the Glen Carrig — the band also released Live Prey (review here) in 2020; they have not been absent these last eight years — as that album had one of six pieces under 10 minutes long and this one has three of seven and nothing that reaches longer than 12, but long or short, it is the ambience and the willful slog that make the most resonant impression, such that the sheer heft of their tonality, tectonically significant as it might be, is only part of their aesthetic.

Ahab (Photo by Stefan Heilemann)

The mood of centerpiece “The Sea as a Desert,” for example, feels even more crucial than the impact, particularly as Droste departs from low death metal growling in favor of a wistful clean-sung midsection and ending that is worthy of comparison to Warning. That’s not his first trade between harshness and melody on The Coral Tombs, but it is one that works particularly well amid the swaying progression that backs it, and as “The Sea as a Desert” is the first of four cuts all of which top 10 minutes — a monolith that comprises the bulk of the record that would be a full-length unto itself, if incomplete in narrative — it also draws the listener deeper into the grim grandeur that continues to unfold across “A Coral Tomb,” “Ægri Somnia” and closer “The Mælstrom,” which bookends Chris Dark‘s guest appearance on “Prof. Arronax’s Descent Into the Vast Oceans” by welcoming Greg Chandler of experimentalist doom extremists Esoteric for a corresponding vocal spot.

While the ocean teems with life — less so thanks to humans and our collective affinity for habitat destruction, but still — “A Coral Tomb” is relatively minimal, holding a persistent threat across its first eight minutes that even when it surges to full crescendo remains consistent in its atmospheric lean, and “Ægri Somnia” follows suit with a beginning of softly meandering guitar that seems to grow more mysterious and sinister as it develops toward the eventual crash and growls, which, as with the song before, give way to melodic singing that is sustained through the ending. One wonders if Droste needs to growl at all at this point, but the honest answer is probably yes. With a feedback ending awaiting, “Ægri Somnia” arrives at a viciously heavy apex, and lets “The Mælstrom” with its more immediate and clean-vocals-up-front start serve as the capstone for The Coral Tombs‘ entire procession.

The feeling is duly ceremonial for being both the summary of the record and the end of the story being related, and with Chandler‘s vocals placed near the ending, Ahab effectively cast the finish as something bigger than themselves, a kind of bowing to the immensity that, indeed, they’ve made all along, but is that much truer to what they’re portraying for the choice. It is not a decision one would expect from a new band, but though they haven’t had a studio LP (or 2LP, or 3LP, etc.) in some time, Ahab are nonetheless veterans, with an established aural persona the parameters of which serve as a guide for their ongoing creative development. By its very character, let alone the contextual sphere in which it resides, The Coral Tombs will likely not be universal in its appeal, but while some listeners won’t be able to reach it, others will dive that much deeper for the cold siren calls ringing out from this material.

Ahab, The Coral Tombs (2023)

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