The first 10 minutes of Tomb Mold’s triumphant The Enduring Spirit make it obvious why they’re one of the most beloved death metal bands of the past decade. The Toronto trio emerged in 2015 amid the same death metal wave that launched old-school revivalists Gatecreeper and outer-space voyagers Blood Incantation, and their sound fell somewhere in the middle: brutal enough to satisfy the base urges of the death-metal lizard brain, but with a heady virtuosity that gestured toward the cosmos. They were also prolific, releasing three records in three consecutive years, climaxing with 2019’s stellar Planetary Clairvoyance. In the years since, the band has mostly been on ice, so it’s a thrill to press play on The Enduring Spirit and hear them roaring back to life, showing off the same tangled riffs, nimble drums, and inhuman growls they perfected across their first three records.
As great as “The Perfect Memory (Phantasm of Aura)” and “Angelic Fabrications” are, those first two tracks serve as a canny bit of misdirection. The third track, “Will of Whispers,” kicks off with a drum fill from drummer/vocalist Max Klebanoff then drops into a gentle, open-hearted chord, ringing out over a wordless vocal from Klebanoff that sounds more like a yogic om than his typical growl. For the next 40 seconds, guitarists Derrick Vella and Payson Power exchange flickering jazz licks and clean, echoey progressions, while Vella’s freewheeling bass roams the open spaces. Only after this sunlit reverie does the heavy riff come in, ferrying the song through a whirring fantasia of muscular death metal and dreamy atmospherics. For the rest of the album, Tomb Mold play fast and loose with the boundaries between death metal and their myriad other interests—jazz fusion,’70s prog, 4AD-style dream-pop. But crucially, they never sound bored with death metal. However far afield their explorations take them, they remain enthralled by the genre’s awesome potential.
There are precursors to their approach. Death, by many measures the very first death metal band, quickly made their way from the malformed thrash of Scream Bloody Gore to something far stranger. (With screechier vocals, Spirit highlight “Servants of Possibility” could be a Symbolic outtake.) Atheist’s mutant prog-death looms large here, and the gonzo weirdness of Demilich and the cavernous doom-death of Incantation still lurk in the corners. But the classic band Tomb Mold most resembles at this point is Cynic, whose synth-and-vocoder-heavy sound and fixation on Zen Buddhism made them one of death metal’s most glorious oddities in the early ’90s. Like Cynic, Tomb Mold are seekers, fascinated by metal’s transcendental potential as much as its flesh-and-blood physicality. On The Enduring Spirit, they frequently sound ecstatic, as though they’re a riff away from discovering the music of the spheres. Trollish black metal kids in Scandinavia used to take the piss out of death metal bands by calling their music “life metal.” For Tomb Mold, that epithet would likely come as a compliment.
Klebanoff’s lyrics echo the spiritual bent of the music, shedding the cosmic horror and science fiction of the band’s past work in favor of investigations of philosophy and metaphysics. Many of Klebanoff’s most striking lines take the form of self-interrogation: “Is power for its own sake what we desire?”; “How will I see my life until I have left it behind?”; “Why do we change?” On the late-album scorcher “Flesh as Armour,” he sings, “Let us be gentle when questioning ourselves.” Klebanoff knows that the key to enlightenment lies within, but that it must be nurtured. His deathly groans are still largely indecipherable without following the lyric sheet, but more than ever before, his words make it worth the effort.
It’s not just the lyrics that embody the band’s evolution. Vella and Power’s guitars hum with an almost devotional intensity, whether they’re working through tricky, tech-y riffs or ripping through expressive, lyrical solos. The hooks on The Enduring Spirit aren’t vocal lines—they’re lead guitar parts, powered by Vella and Power’s memorable phrasing and clean articulation. Even when the band whips into a densely layered frenzy, every note has room to breathe. (Metal superproducer Arthur Rizk’s mix has plenty to do with that.) Vella’s bass playing is every bit as impressive. With his bouncy mid-tune solo from “Angelic Fabrications” and the melodic, Geddy Lee-like licks from “Will of Whispers” alone, he’s earned entry to the death-metal bass Hall of Fame alongside pioneers like Tony Choy and Steve DiGiorgio. Not bad for a guitarist.
The closing “The Enduring Spirit of Possibility” is the hard-won culmination of the band’s evolution, and the song that cements The Enduring Spirit as their best album yet. At 11 and a half minutes, it’s also the longest, most ambitious Tomb Mold song to date. Its blistering opening movement returns the band to their death-metal blitz mode, delivering some of the toughest riffs and gnarliest vocals on the album. But it touches the sublime about four minutes in, when the furious riffing dissipates. For the next five minutes, the band builds to a strange crescendo, peaking not in volume or intensity but in sheer beauty. Vella and Power trade soaring solos and languorous chords over a bed of shuffling drums, borrowing from the vocabulary of Vella’s “dream-doom” band Dream Unending. When the death metal finally does kick back in, for a coda as invigorating as anything on the album, it feels less like the end of the journey than the opening of another pathway.