I'm happy to see a new album from Ahab, because they've been away from the studio from quite a long time, their fourth album, The Boats of the Glen Carrig, released in 2015. However, this is very different from the Ahab I remember, in a number of directions. I remember them playing funeral doom, shifting between ambient atmospheric passages and crushingly slow doom metal. A friend added their debut album, The Call of the Wretched Sea to the playlist in his car, after I gave him a copy, and it had quite the impact on his passengers!
On the face of it, this is a clear continuation of what Ahab do, because The Coral Tombs is another concept album fashioned from literature that runs long but with few songs, the majority of them reaching the ten minute mark. Sure, this is actually their shortest album, by about thirty seconds, but shortest for Ahab still means an hour and six minutes. This time the source material is Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea by Jules Verne, which means we're not just out there on a broad ocean, we're underneath it. And, thinking of it as a complete chunk of music, it's clearly still doom.
However, the opening track, Prof. Arronax' Descent into the Vast Oceans, which was also released last year as the first single, takes its doom in a couple of very different directions to funeral doom. It starts out much faster than I'd have expected, Daniel Droste's cavernously deep vocals joined by Chris Noir of Ultha, who delivers a bleaker black metal shriek that I'm used to in Ahab. And then it calms down, all the way to an almost Floydian ambience. It's agreeably slow now, but the vocals at this point are entirely clean and rather resonant and they stay that way into the first recognisable funeral doom section almost four minutes in, only finding harshness a couple of minutes later as it all shifts into a guitar solo.
Now, none of that is inherently bad, merely unusual enough to be surprising. I rather like this new approach, which almost seems the textures of funeral doom as an element of progressive rock. I'm especially fond of that clean vocal, which at this pace feels all the more emotional, an outpouring of despair into a deep abyss, appropriate given the context, though I recall Prof. Arronax in a state of wonder as the Nautilus descended into the depths. Maybe I need to re-read the source novel. It serves as a pivotal book for the steampunk community, after all. I should keep it fresh.
Colossus of the Liquid Graves, the other single, is much closer to what I expect from Ahab, even if it wraps up in an almost unfathomable six and a half minutes. It's slow and heavy throughout, full of epochal power chords under a slow melody line. Droste effectively duets with himself, alternating between his usual deep and guttural harsh voice and that soaring clean voice so apparent on the opener. It's an excellent contrast, especially for this material, because it feels like the harsh voice is underwater, while the clean one soars above the waves waiting for the Nautilus to broach.
And so it goes. I'm not sure if I ever heard The Boats of the Glen Carrig, even though I'm a William Hope Hodgson fan, so I really should, but I believe I've heard everything before then, certainly the first couple of albums, and I don't remember this balance before. The Ahab in my memory are like the heavier sections here, albeit slower still, with some of the lighter sections there to serve as a contrast. However, I'm remembering a 10:1 balance rather than the 2:1 balance we get here. Long passages in many of these songs are neither doom nor metal and feel much more like an ambient take on prog rock.
Now, it still sounds good so I'm not complaining and it's arguably rather appropriate this time out because I vividly recall page after page of the Nautilus steadily moving along underwater while its new passengers marvel at the sea creatures they pass. Verne was clearly an effusive fan of fish, so whole sections of the book read like an exhaustive commentary by an author who has visited a big aquarium and is aching to tell us about all the colours. Many of those sections here unfold entirely instrumentally, so we don't have to put up with that commentary except in shades of sound, which I'm not unhappy about in the slightest.
For old school Ahab, A Coral Tomb may come closest in toto to what you're looking for. I'm tempted to call out the opener as my highlight, but I dug a lot of the ambient sections that remind of quiet instrumental Genesis, so I'm not going to turn my nose up at songs like Ægri Somnia either. This is likely to be a shock to many Ahab fans, but it's a really good album. Welcome back, folks!