When Tribulation burst upon the scene in 2009 with The Horror, the group seemed like it would be another in a long line of solid Swedish death metal bands with equal amounts of love for the bands of its homeland and old-school Teutonic thrash. The band likely could have released half a dozen similar slabs and made a nice career for itself resting on the laurels of such an acclaimed debut.
But that would have been too easy.
Possibly using elder statesmen and fellow Swedes Opeth and Meshuggah as inspiration (attitudinally more so than musically), Tribulation have used death metal as a foundation upon which to build almost immediately. Their sophomore outing, 2013’s The Formulas of Death, kept the new wave of old school ethos but enhanced the sound with progressive elements. In 2015, The Children of the Night was even more of a departure. The band fully embraced classic-rock structure, creating a black pastiche owing as much to goth as to metal, psyche-rock, and prog. It received nearly universal acclaim from inside the metal world as well as outside of it; it was the #2 album of the year for Decibel Magazine and at Stereogum, it was ranked #24, sandwiched between Blur and Drake and second among metal releases only to New Bermuda by Deafheaven.
Coincidentally, Down Below (Century Media) sees a kinship with Deafheaven beyond the obvious appeal to those who reside outside of the dark realm. The Californian crew was the first to mix black metal with new romanticism, something that Tribulation has added to death metal with astounding success. “The World” could be growling Spandau Ballet—seriously, you can imagine Tribulation doing a mean cover of “To Cut a Long Story Short”—with layers of guitars flickering like flames against tribal percussion and solos that sound like something David Gilmour could have snuck on a Bowie record.
The guitars of Adam Zaars and Jonathan Hultén have always been Tribulation’s best asset and that remains the case. Bands this catchy usually are so because they find a riff and stick with it. Again, that would be too easy. The duo manages to tame the adventurous musicianship of progressive rock by avoiding the pretension. Nothing here is quite as immediate as “Melancholia” from Children of the Night, but the shifting, soaring rhythms of “Nightbound” and the anthemic power metal of “Cries from the Underworld” come awfully close. Elsewhere, new drummer Oscar Leander, formerly of industrial metallers Deathstars, gets to show off his prowess on “Lacrimosa,” which kicks off with furious double-bass rumbling and shifts gears at least twice before becoming a psychedelic mosh pit of sorts about halfway through.
The best way to follow up a groundbreaking album isn’t always to break new ground. If Children of the Night was Tribulation finally solidifying its sound, Down Below sees the Swedes refining it like a lapidary would a gemstone. The band has finished polishing and its metamorphosis to brilliant diamond is complete.