Much has been made about Tribulation’s unexpected move away from the local strain of Swedish death metal into something more ancient: strains of eerie goth, 70s prog, and large doses of proto-metal. While pinning down the Swedish group’s current sound is an interesting exercise, it diminishes something very important about the group’s latest record: Down Below is a efficient, vicious batch of sonic joy. While their styles are fairly different, Tribulation follows in the formula, the essence, of what makes fellow countrymen Ghost’s retro hard rock so engaging: it’s truly fucking mesmerizing, drawing the listener into a unique, fun world and never forgetting that metal can be gleefully entertaining.
Let’s not kid ourselves, Down Below is a dark record, obsessed with death and what comes after, but it’s like candy for the Gothic soul; it’s a romantic tribute to those who feel alive in the dark. Tribulation absolutely radiate the atmosphere of Victorian Europe, down to the font choice and silhouettes of cathedrals in the album art. Despite the lyrical and thematic darkness, Down Below expands upon what made the band’s last record, Children of the Night so wonderful (but slightly overlong), while keeping things brief and efficient; the nine songs fly without a bump in the night (or bad trak). The first three songs are easily among the best opening trio in recent memory, with razor-sharp melodies and hair-raising guitar leads and solos, and it’s a credit to the band’s songwriting ability that the remaining two-thirds doesn’t dip in quality. Vocalist Johannes Andersson hasn’t broken away from his black metal rasp just yet, but the songs are so bright and cheery (at least for the minor scale) that clean vocals would seem out of place.
A big part of Gothic fiction is psychological: fighting against the urge to forge your own path while forsaking what’s comfortable. That’s exactly what Tribulation have done with this, their magnum opus: even though they began as a traditional Swedish death metal act, slowly they’ve broken from past shackles and truly come into their own. In the process, they’ve created one of the best metal records in years and a true classic in Gothic metal.