“Hard rock” is an embarrassing thing for a band to be classified as in 2023. It’s more acceptable than ever for music fans to say they love heavy metal, whether they’re indie-rock expats or Taylor Swift devotees. But in an increasingly black-and-white world, most people don’t know what to do with a term like “hard rock.” There’s just too much gray area, and bands of that ilk aren’t as easily identifiable as yesteryear’s spandex-wearing denizens whose other vices included equally unencumbered obsessions with hairspray and cocaine.
In the late aughts, Sweden’s Tribulation busted out of the gate like rabid wolves with a fresh sound that could be called “pop metal” if it didn’t seem blasphemous to do so—it was that catchy. The quartet continued to weave other strains into the mix (a heaping serving of death metal here, a sip from the chalice of gothic-metal there) on subsequent releases. All along, they managed to retain their core appeal, making the evolution of the band feel natural.
Tribulation attracted so much adoration because they already had charisma and swagger, and virtually every song they churned out had the potential to be a single. But they seemed to reach a ceiling with their latest record, 2021’s Where the Gloom Becomes Sound. As with each of their releases, Tribulation’s fifth full-length secured more critical adoration for them. Growing their fan base, however, proved elusive; on their last tour, they were billed last on a lineup that also featured Watain, Abbath, and Bölzer (the latter being a band that had previously opened for Tribulation).
So, what’s holding back Tribulation from reaching even greater heights? Could it be the corpse paint, since they’re not a black-metal band? Is it Johannes Andersson’s growling delivery, which perfectly suits the band’s grimy aesthetic but might sound dated at a time when metal fans are obsessed with harsher vocals?
Whatever the case, it seems criminal that another corpse-painted Swedish hard-rock band that emerged around the same time as Tribulation—Ghost—has reached unthinkable heights in their popularity. Whether that also gets under the skin of Tribulation doesn’t really matter. As proven on Hamartia, they don’t appear poised to make a gear shift as drastic as adding singing into the mix, or embracing a more extreme sound that would repel the band from its original vision. Instead, on the new EP they’re embracing their true identity as a death-metal band that, under the corpse paint, is really a hard-rock outfit at heart.
The title track is a banger that ranks with “Strange Gateways Beckon,” “In Remembrance,” and “Nightbound” as radio-friendly songs in an age when radio barely exists. Dismiss the notion that “Hamartia” is a metal song at your own will; Tribulation prove their unshakable love for hard rock with the EP’s final track, a cover of Blue Öyster Cult’s “Vengeance (The Pact).” The two songs sandwiched in between are even more undeniable: “Axis Mundi,” a high-wire act for the band’s guitarist duo, and the gloomy, seven-minute excursion “Hemoclysm.”
It’s probably tough to market a band like Tribulation in this day and age. But so long as they continue to be true to themselves, as they do on Hamartia, the foursome will keep appealing to fans of heavy music who don’t care about labels, and prove their staying power in the decades to come.