Doom metal is always tricky, isn’t it? There’s a certain audacity to music that tells you from the start that it isn’t in a hurry but makes a promise to keep you engaged for the hour or so that it plans to stick around. Sure, some of this is on the listener and making sure that you’re in the right headspace and have the needed amount of patience to appreciate it. Funeral doom has an additional hurdle of basically being doom metal, but even slower than the average fare. Perhaps the shining example of a doom band that knows how to navigate these waters (pun quite intended) is Ahab. They have made a career out of defying these expectations by creating ways to make their magnificent dirges accessible and dynamic without stepping too far out of the genre’s somewhat arbitrary boundaries. Since Call of the Wretched Sea appeared on our radar, this band has continually pushed its way forward and rarely, if ever, repeated what came before.
The last time we got a full-length record from Ahab was in 2015, so we fans of the band welcomed news of The Coral Tombs with open arms. Eight of them. For myself, this band epitomizes doom metal in a way that few bands do. First of all, it is metal, and it is also doom. Sometimes doom is, to my way of thinking, sort of its own thing and doesn’t embrace – or need to embrace – metal at all. Ahab always find this balance. One needn’t look any further than the opening track on The Coral Tombs, “Prof. Arronax’ Descent into the Vast Oceans”, which features a guest spot from Chris Dark of Ultha. This searing is not only jarring sonically but is the emotional slingshot that propels the album forward into the murky deep. As expected the titular character is from a nautical tale, specifically Jules Verne’s seminal literary masterpiece 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and the song chronicles his curiosity and dialog with the enigmatic Captain Nemo. This song serves as a violent plunge into this vast record, and the initial violence gives way to a slower, aqueous pace.
Using 20,000 Leagues as the foundation for an Ahab album is probably the aptest and most expected thing to do, but it is also a rich place to mine. The lyrics are lifted from the book itself and chronicle fascination, wonder, terror, and resolve. “Mobilis in Mobili” kicks off the middle section of the record, where thematically and lyrically the arrogance and madness begin to set in while still mixed with wonder at the immensity of the oceans. This point of view is one that, in many ways, drives the album. The fear, fascination, and overwhelming power of the seas are ideas on which the characters and songs ruminate, and while it’s somewhat obvious, this is quite the meta for a band like Ahab, a band that has worshiped the oceans for an entire career.
Sonically, Ahab continues to pull from their source material, themes, and fixations; each song is in some way analogous to the fickle mistress of the sea – at times tranquil and beautiful, at others tumultuous and unpredictable. This cohesion of theme, lyrics, and sonic framework make for one of the finest tapestries in all of heavy music. “Ægri Somnia”, the penultimate song on The Coral Tombs, is perhaps the most dynamic, as it lurches from one mood to another while lyrically, the story begins its inevitable unraveling as the characters begin losing their grip on their humanity. “The Mælstrom” has the tall task of closing out this leviathan of an album, and manages to do so with a triumphant tone that feels ironically heroic as Captain Nemo extols his own achievements. The lead line from the opening track refrains as the album closes, bookending the album and putting a nice bow on the album as it concludes.
To say Ahab are masters of their craft may seem like an understatement, but frankly, it’s the most accurate thing that you can say about them. Since their inception, they know what they want to say and how to say it. The Coral Tombs is a record that lives up to the legacy that this band has created, and while its placement in their discography will take some time to sort out, I can resoundingly say this is one of their finer efforts. I have been a fan of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea since I was a boy, and hearing Ahab’s interpretation is a genuine joy.