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The Coral Tombs

Germany Country of Origin: Germany

The Coral Tombs
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Type: Full-Length
Release Date: January 13th, 2023
Genre: Funeral Doom
1. Prof. Arronax' Descent Into The Vast Oceans
2. Colossus Of The Liquid Graves
3. Mobilis In Mobili
4. The Sea As A Desert
5. A Coral Tomb
6. Ægri Somnia
7. The Mælstrom


Review by Benjamin on April 9, 2024.

Ahab are a German doom band, whose music is centred around nautical themes, initially focussed on Herman Melville's classic novel Moby Dick, although the band have widened their sphere of influences in recent years to encompass other literary works that relate to the oceanic depths. The surprise here, is not the existence of a metal band with this kind of concept at its heart, but the lack of existence of a larger number of metal bands that base their own music around similar themes. While some of the other conventional areas of interest for heavy metal are unquestionably well-suited to such dramatic and extreme music - Tolkien's Middle Earth, historical military conflicts, and Lovecraftian horror - the almost fathomless depths of the waters that make up so much of the Earth would also seem to be almost perfectly designed to inspire a legion of bands just like Ahab. This is not to say that there is a total absence of interest in the ocean; the pinnacle of Mastodon's achievements is "Leviathan", an album that is loosely based on Moby Dick, Running Wild represent the respectable tip of the iceberg of the sometimes risible 'pirate metal' scene, and both fellow Germans The Ocean, and Devin Townsend's Ocean Machine show a self-evident interest in this area. However, it is fair to say that no other metal band to date quite embodies the many moods of the open waters in quite the way that Ahab have mastered so brilliantly. Ahab do not only write about the ocean, they sound like their music has been trawled from the sea floor, or wrought directly from the waves themselves, briny liquid reshaped into muscular riffs and shimmering melodies, forever moving, eternally present.

Perhaps conscious that there is little remaining mileage in Moby Dick, The Coral Tombs, the band's fifth full-length switches attention to Jules Verne's own classic tale, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. The first track, 'Prof. Arronax' Descent Into The Vast Oceans' is a pretty on-the-nose title for a song that introduces the key figures in Verne's novel, Professor Arronax (a French marine biologist, and narrator of the story), and Captain Nemo. The latter is a marvellous literary creation, inventor and pilot of his own submarine, The Nautilus, the craft in which the men descend, as suggested by the song's title, into the mysterious depths of the ocean. The track begins in unexpected fashion, given Ahab's status as a funeral doom act, with an extended Dave Lombardo-style drum fill introducing a passage of discordant noise, overlayed with anguished screams. This surely adapts the section of the book in which Arronax is captured by Nemo, before being brought inside Nemo's craft, before the vessel is lowered beneath the surface in search of underwater marvels. Calm is quickly established though, as the frantic introduction ebbs away into something more tranquil. Beatific chords, barely picked, come into view, like waves gently lapping at the shore's edge, immediately creating a truly immersive atmosphere that sets the scene wonderfully for the lumbering doom that the band finally drop into. Despite the relative simplicity of the band's style of riffing, the swelling resonance of the huge walls of guitar chords generates a rich and sonorous harmonic structure, the sonics as captivating as Daniel Droste's wonderful melodies that carry the rest of the song. Droste's plaintive timbre, and even his note choices, strongly resemble Patrick Walker's magnificent work on Warning's landmark "Watching From A Distance", and although he does not bring the same level of almost-unbearable emotion that Walker contributed to that band, the openness and sincerity with which Droste imbues Ahab's music effortlessly holds the listener's attention. Droste's lilting vocal lines are memorable enough to betray a songwriting capability unusual for the sub-genre, all the while relating Arronax' pivotal introduction to Nemo, the Captain taking the song's final verse: "Civilised people abandoned me! / Alas I'm not, I am not to blame! / I bow alone to mother sea! / And Captain Nemo is my name!" Like the song built around it, this is quite the opening gambit, preparing the listener for a voyage of discovery in which almost anything is possible.

The Coral Tombs is a very consistent album, with no major flaws, but it reaches an early peak with the appropriately-titled 'Colossus Of The Liquid Graves'. In a sub-genre that can often be defined by a high degree of devotion to, and even emulation of, a small number of totemic bands (Black Sabbath being the most obvious), Ahab successfully carve out a distinct sound, while operating firmly within the doom realm. However, 'Colossus...' runs through a number of sections that do recall a host of doom masters, and it makes for an immensely satisfying track. The spiralling, slightly dissonant lead guitar line that introduces the track is a huge nod to early Katatonia, and Ahab go full Peaceville with a main riff that is an almost perfect synthesis of pre-Icon Paradise Lost and pre-Radiohead Anathema. The tempo drags in the best possible way, as if the guitars were physically hauling the drumkit behind them, while Cornelius Althammer (nominative determinism at its best) continues to pummel the cymbals and toms. As they demonstrate on numerous occasions throughout The Coral Tombs, Ahab have a compositional nous that elevates them above many of their peers, and this comes to the fore with immense results here. The downbeat trudge of the verse, sacrificing nothing in terms of oppressive weight, gives way to a glorious descending guitar run that is pure Iommi, a chink of sunlight permeating the unending deep, and providing a sense of equilibrium to a track that benefits from the swinging groove that cascades sinuously through an utterly outstanding song.

The swing of this track, while showcasing the band's ability to access the roots of doom when they elect to, is something of an anomaly on an album that mostly takes a more modern approach to the sub-genre than Sleep, or Electric Wizard, for example. Indeed, the cavernous vocals, and queasy lead guitars of 'Mobilis In Mobili' place the band briefly at the death metal end of the death-doom spectrum. Here, Ahab view 1990s death metal through a cracked lens, a slow-motion Morbid Angel gradually suffocating the listener, as opposed to snapping their necks. Elsewhere though, their lightness of touch allows the Germans to create an extraordinary dynamic range that accentuates every crushing note wrenched from the fretboard. The glacial title track is barely there at times, a wraithlike vocal presence occasionally coming to the fore, spindrift on the wind, and the pretty post-rock of the early part of 'Ægri Somnia' combines with lush and complex chord voicings to create true tranquillity, eventually shattered by the churning guitars that dominate the latter half of the track. The uncluttered nature of Ahab's music forces the listener to meditate on virtually every single note played, the pick scraping the coiled string becoming almost palpable, as we are drawn further and further into Ahab's underwater world, journeying with them through the aquatic universe. Every note is given the chance to live, to breathe, and to die; a deliberate and considered choice selected for optimum impact, and deployed to huge and emotional effect. This reaches an apex on the masterful 'The Sea As A Desert', which employs as an anchor the kind of drone that we might find in the music of Neurosis or Amenra, the guitars gradually moving away in steps from this point, as if ebbing away on the waves, before the band finally allow their boat to float free of encumbrance, in a huge release that gives the listener up to the wild ocean, overtaken by unstoppable nature.

The Coral Tombs is an excellent album, but it would be disingenuous not to point out the flaws that are infrequently displayed. Once or twice, Ahab don't quite master the dynamics that make their best work so special, and this is never more apparent than on 'The Maelstrom', which closes the record. The song does eventually blossom into a dense passage of riffing, that rivals YOB for transcendent intensity, but it takes a little too long to reach its destination, and is perhaps a track too far, on an album that requires the listener to hold their focus for an extended period of time. These misgivings are nearly swept away by the scorched earth conclusion, but Ahab's aspirations require us to hold them to an exacting standard, and this means that we cannot entirely forgive the moments in which their music does not quite reach the heights that they prove themselves capable of ascending to. As affecting as Daniel Droste's plaintive vocals generally are (and a refreshing change from the characterless growls that often accompany second-tier death-doom), the lack of variety found in his melodies becomes increasingly apparent as the album progresses. Similar intervals and note choices are employed on a number of tracks, and it is clear that the band possess an innate limitation with respect to the composition of vocal melodies. While they do not actively detract from the band's stately sound, the opportunity to push Ahab to the kind of rarefied level occupied by only the absolute masters of the genre is lost. This is especially egregious when one considers the wonderful lyrics that Droste has at his disposal, lyrics that virtually beg to be transformed into towering and memorable hooks. It is not a huge leap to imagine the closing verse of 'A Coral Tomb' in the hands of a band such as Mastodon: "Sleep, my friend / Entangle me in gloom / Safe from shark and man / Sleep in your coral tomb", but here, the potential impact of such vivid imagery is attenuated, the band failing to maximise one of their biggest assets. In the final judgement though, we must record that on balance, the scales of justice fall firmly in favour of The Coral Tombs. In a sub-genre that tends towards the generic, Ahab's songwriting ability is anomalous, and they effortlessly combine thunderous heaviness with elegant beauty, resulting in an album as deep and mysterious as the ocean of which they write, and one which will last as long as the sea itself.

Rating: 8.2 out of 10

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