The New Jersey death metal stalwarts have endured strife, but they deliver the goods on their homegrown new album, Under Sullen Skies.
While many artists have remained sequestered at home licking their wounds following the cancellation of live performances and other missed opportunities, New Jersey experimental black metal outfit Tombs enjoyed success with not one but two releases: the EP, Monarchy of Shadows and the current full-length LP, Under Sullen Skies, both via Seasons of Mist.
Following the 2007 split of Mike Hill’s previous band Versoma, he began developing his vision for Tombs. Throughout the band’s 13-year career, there have been ups and downs, internal band upheaval, and line-up changes set to a soundtrack of classic extreme metal. But Hill has never strayed from his original purpose for Tombs. A determined and steadfast leader, Hill is a certified workaholic, who in addition to Tombs, also dabbles in podcasts and journalism, covering music and MMA fighting. Hill recently spoke with us from his home in New Jersey, not too far from the famed Vintage Vinyl.
Tombs great Monarchy of Shadows EP was released in early spring 2020, just weeks before the entire planet shut down. The band didn’t have the chance to tour or promote. Now, as 2021 begins, the band have released the impressive full-length album Under Sullen Skies. Why didn’t you wait to release it until later in 2021, when life hopefully returns to normal?
It’s not my call. Evidently, the label had this year’s release schedule locked in by November or December 2019 and did not [deter from it as the pandemic spread]. As covid-19 hit, I checked in with our manager to see if the label was still going to put it out and he said, ‘Yes.’ So, I said, ‘Great. Let’s have one bright moment in a year of darkness. Let’s have our LP, which we put so much time and effort into, come out and maybe it could bring some people some enjoyment during this period of despair.’
During 2020 a number of great albums were released then quickly went by the wayside. Even albums by household names like Ozzy Osbourne, Green Day, and Pearl Jam landed with a thud because they were not properly promoted or toured behind. Are you concerned Under Sullen Skies will be another proverbial tree in the woods, being ignored because few people know about it or have heard it?
Yes. Everyone knows Tombs is a road band. We perform at many [international] festivals. We do what we have to do on tour. But there is also no guarantee that we’re going to be able to do anything [this] year [and] by then, we will have a new album ready to go. We are always working on new material, we are always creating. We are always recording demos and we have little bits and pieces for new songs. I am not saying we will release a new album next summer, but we will already be well past [Under Sullen Skies] by the time we can actually hit the road. People seem to like the new record, so hopefully, they will still be into it the next time they see us perform.
Tell me about Clifton, New Jersey’s Fright Box studios in Clifton, New Jersey, where you recorded both the EP and the new album.
We worked with Erik Rutan (producer, Morbid Angel) on the last two [full-length] albums (2014’s Savage Gold and 2017’s The Grand Annihilation). We wanted to work with him again, but there were scheduling issues. He’s been playing guitar with Cannibal Corpse as of late…. We have known Fright Box Studios producer Bobby Torres for a while. Some of the other guys in the band have worked with him and I was familiar with some of [the other records he has produced]. So, we knew he would be the perfect guy to step in and work with us.
And the results show.
The process was easy and [the end results] sound great. It was also convenient. We didn’t have to fly [down to Florida, where Erik Rutan is based] and get hotel rooms. We just drove over to Clifton and knocked it out. Hopefully, this record will help Bobby attract more work. He is a local guy, but his work is in the same realm of producers who are doing much larger, bigger records.
Torres did a great job capturing your unique sound. Under Sullen Skies doesn’t resemble early black metal records that sound as if it they were captured on a cheap boom box, but it doesn’t sound overly produced, either. It is raw, edgy, and perfectly brutal. Is Under Sullen Skies the next step in Tomb’s evolution?
The band is playing better. Our technical proficiency has enabled me to take my vocals in the direction I’ve always wanted them to go in. It has been a decade-long journey of trying to express myself in the way I wanted to when I formed this band.
Finding your voice?
I am a big fan of death metal and goth, from Nick Cave and Swans to Morbid Angel, Black Sabbath, Watain, and Fields of the Nephilim. All of those [diverse artists] are expressing the same feelings. I just wanted to have more control over how I used my voice. And I feel with the recent EP and this new record we’re getting close to exactly the way I hear things in my head when I am writing songs. I like being able to handle the extreme singing and the more melodic singing, but I want the transitions to be even more seamless. I’ve become more comfortable and more confident in doing that. And that is one of the biggest steps forward when it comes to the band’s sound. Also, this lineup of Tombs is playing better and playing faster. I also like that this lineup is able to dig deep into that mainline of what the songs are all about; digging deep into the dark feeling I have about this world.
You’ve finally achieved a sense of satisfaction.
During the last half of our career, I haven’t felt satisfied. It wasn’t until 2020 that I’ve been happy with our results. Both the EP and the full-length are the end result of a decade of trial and error. We have finally succeeded after experiencing some hard times.
There have been a number of line-up changes over the years.
There was drama surrounding that. I had a hard time making [The Grand Annihilation]. There was so much personal stuff going on within the band that it was hard keeping things going. I am still close with a lot of former members of the band, except for the guys that played on that last album. People were involved with the band for the wrong reasons. A couple of members looked at Tombs as a way to further their careers. Those guys just ended up showing up with these schemes to branch off and do other things. For instance, they complained that we should be making more money.
Money has destroyed a number of great bands.
[Situations like] ‘You owe me $70.00.’ It turned into a lot of backstabbing. During the sessions for The Grand Annihilation, which we recorded for Metal Blade Records, one guy quit, while another guy said he couldn’t come down to record. The album ended up being a failure because of the behind-the-scenes drama.
Did some members jump at the chance to work with Metal Blade Records rather than give their all to Tombs?
Yes. We signed with the label during the summer of 2016 and were scheduled to go into the recording studio in January 2017. Even back then there were these problems. I told them, ‘Just sign the contract. If anyone isn’t ready to do this just be a man about it. If you can’t commit or if you want to do other things, fine.’ I gave everyone a six-months heads up to what we’re planning to do the following year. ‘We’re going on the road and all of this stuff is lined up. If you’re not with this plan, no heat. [But] if you sign your name to this document, that means that you are down.‘ And I wasn’t saying anyone had to leave the band. We would just need someone to fill in [if needed]. When it came time to get the ball rolling, I was left holding the bag. Luckily, I was able to get guys to come in and cover for them. We played Ozzfest and other big events with friends filling in.
Whew! That was fortunate.
I am forever in debt to those guys. I have nothing but gratitude and respect for those guys who stepped up and filled in for that year. Andy Thomas [Black Crown Initiate] and Greg Meisenberg and [current Tombs drummer] Justin Spaeth: they saved my ass. Otherwise, Tombs probably would not exist today.