The evening of February 10, 2015, was a quintessential, wet, cold, Seattle evening. A line of shivering metal fans wrapped the city's storied hard rock venue, El Corazon. Historic death metal act Cannibal Corpse were headlining a sold-out show, and ticket holders wanted to arrive early and establish spots close to the stage.
Doors opened at 7:30, at the same time Swedish heavy metal act Tribulation began. At the time, the quartet was preparing to release its third album, The Children of the Night. That album was its first for the widely-distributed label Century Media, and as such, most of the crowd had never heard—or even heard of—the band. Fans that were expecting a night of straightforward brutal death metal songs like "Stripped Raped and Strangled" and "Fucked with a Knife" were greeted with an altogether different experience once the Swedes strode onstage, dressed to kill.
Tribulation came out wearing thigh-length waistcoats and tighter-than-tight pants reminiscent of gentlemen's fashion from the 1800s. They wore corpsepaint blended out in the manner of editorial fashion photography. The band ripped through a half hour of melodic heavy metal licks offset by gruff singing. Their set reached its apex when they performed a song called "The Motherhood of God."
Fans trickled in. Some teenagers jostled one another in an embryonic mosh pit. Older metalheads sipped their beers and crossed their arms; a few nodded with approval. For the most part, nobody got it.
"That was the case for the entire tour," Tribulation guitarist and songwriter Adam Zaars says. "But we did manage to win a few of them over. Even the Cannibal Corpse fans."
Impressing Cannibal Corpse diehards is no mean feat. The death metal underground is committed to its idols, and can be averse to change. Many fans want younger bands to pay homage to what came before, write about the same subjects as their forebears, and avoid trying to reinvent the wheel. Tribulation is deferential to extreme metal's traditions, but is also hungry to elevate the genre.
Their latest album, Down Below, is their first since that eye-opening 2015 tour. On it, they've doubled down on the theatrical elements and gothic flair that made them stand out like a sore thumb three years ago. More people know Tribulation now, but the band still won't fit in comfortably to any conventional metal touring packages.
"We don't really have a place anywhere," Jonathan Hultén, who shares songwriting and guitar duties with Zaars, says. "We're doing our own thing always. Tribulation works because we're different and we're comfortable in any context with any bands. The loyalty we have is to our own expression."
Which begs the question: What exactly is Tribulation expressing? Musically, the band makes a seamless whole out of a mix of horror film soundtracks, modern extreme metal, gothic punk from the 80s, and progressive rock from the 70s. They hail from the same modern Swedish metal movement that birthed similar modern-throwback hybrids like the now-defunct In Solitude and crossover hits Ghost—bands who have sometimes been accused of drawing too much on nostalgia.
According to Hultén, though, Tribulation aims to push their music into the future. "We've always felt that it's not enough just playing a show or being a band in the more common sense of the word," he says. "It needs to be more; it can't be one-dimensional. It needs to be a holistic approach. It needs to be larger than life, because that's how we feel about it and that's how we want to feel as well."
Part of Zaars's and Hultén's larger-than-life approach shows through in their fashion choices. They're death metal dandies who look as if they've just stepped out of a time warp leading straight to the doorsteps of 18th century Romantic poets like Percy Shelley. Flamboyant costumes have long been a part of metal's outsized history, but Tribulation's baroque image is unique in that it doesn't actually telegraph how aggressive their music can be—the frills belie the vitriol.
"When people first see us, they might think we don't sound as heavy or extreme," says Zaars, reporting on what he heard from those fans the band has won over on past tours. "And then we play, and some people are just surprised at what they hear."
Tribulation's aesthetic, like their music, undermines the aggressive machismo that many other bands cultivate. Their forebears opted for battle armor-like leather and spikes, or working class jeans and muscle shirts. "We started out at the beginning wanting to look like a mix of early Mayhem and Morbid Angel, but throughout the years we just developed it," he says. "Now it [the band's dress] is a blend of influences from the Misfits as well as wanting to look like an actual corpse. Mixed in with all of that is the aesthetics of Romanticism."
Aesthetically, the band evokes a particular literary trope: The Byronic Hero. Named after Romantic poet Lord Byron, these characters are charismatic, driven by their own set of ideas and more dangerous than they may appear at first glance—a reflection of the band's subtle-but-nasty music. Byron was the inspiration behind John William Polidori's The Vampyre, a short story which shares a title with a Tribulation song.
Where Byron and the Romantics' writings fixate on the exploits of men, Tribulation often write about feminine characters. Case in point, the second single released from Down Below is "Lady Death," and is the latest in a series of Tribulation tunes depicting supernaturally powerful women. Such figures appear prominently in some of Tribulation's most-played tracks, such as "Rånda" and the aforementioned "The Motherhood of God," and often flip the script on subvert metal's history of sexist tropes.
Discarding the violent misogyny that plagues death metal's danker corners, the band stays true to the genre's roots in other ways—like taking Fred Estby, the drummer and songwriter of Swedish death metal royalty Dismember, out on tour with them. Estby runs sound for Tribulation, but as a member of his own band, wrote songs that detailed violence against women, like "Skin Her Alive" and "Eviscerated (Bitch)." Zaars and Hultén share Dismember's massive killing capacity and apparently remain close to Estby; however, when women appear in their lyrics, they are more likely to be the ones doing the eviscerating.
"Tribulation has since a long way back been concerned with the sacred feminine in lyrics and imagery," says Hultén. "It has many different meanings to us depending on the song, but a red thread is without doubt reverence and exaltation, awe and celebration. The dark, female principle in everything is one of our muses that now and always has inspired us, both externally and from within."
"I think it's easier to be creative with it with the feminine side of things," Zaars agrees. "I've always been more attracted to femininity. I'm not saying that in a sexual way—I don't want to be sexist. We could easily be sexist, using naked women to sell the product." Zaars lists Glenn Danzig's various bands as influence,s and points out that the Misfits frontman often uses supernatural women in a sexualized way in lyrics and album art. Tribulation is less interested in sex and more interested in archetypes. "These aren't actual women in the lyrics. It's about femininity in the ethereal sense. We are not talking about the mundane here."
Zaars goes on to insist that the women in Tribulation's lyrics are a necessary part of a holistic musical and spiritual approach to life. Down Below is a record made by four men about what happens to people in the afterlife, and so its grim reaper is a woman. "There is always a balance in Tribulation and since we are all male we try to get the feminine side of things in there."
Hultén echoes his co-guitarist's interest in a balance between the masculine and the feminine. "Although you're a man you have a female side, and if you're a woman you have a male side," he says, before asking "Do you think that's very common? Death metal bands writing songs about violence against women?"
This writer responded, honestly, that while not all — maybe not even a majority of — death metal bands write songs like "Eviscerated (Bitch)" it's a common enough trope to become a stereotype. There are death metal bands that write about killing women, and there are death metal bands that write about aliens, but here's the rub: the bands that write about aliens receive another adjective. They become "sosmic" or "Lovecraftian." Bands who write misogynist lyrics just get to be plain old death metal bands.
"That's sad," Hultén sighs. "You consist of the whole range of emotions and what you choose is how you are perceived, but there is the potential for more. To strive for wholeness is important."
In reaching for androgyny, Tribulation conjures the ghosts of artists like David Bowie, who left his mark on heavy metal (many denim and leather bands including Motörhead have covered his songs) but has little bearing on bands like Dismember and Cannibal Corpse. "We've been called a death metal band from the 70s. It's anachronistic, but we feel good about it," he says. "Maybe they were a bit closer to balance in those days. Not many people try to go there anymore. Not in metal anyways. Those artists [including Bowie] maybe had access to the whole range of their potential in the way of expressing themselves. They were much freer than many other artists are nowadays. In metal, the niche is very narrow. They had more freedom in their art and freedom is something that we want."
"Subculture can be a prison," Hultén concludes. "It can be liberation, but it can be choking as well."
Hultén has seen that prison firsthand. It looks like a wet concrete floor full of dudes in denim jackets that don't know what to do when they see a band trying to use death metal to express something emotional. But those are the exact people that Tribulation needs to reach, and maybe they will with Down Below.
Joseph Schafer is down on Twitter.