The Tunnel, out of San Francisco, swaggers through a doomed and noir-ish landscape of abandoned taverns and spectral red light districts. Armed with just the basics — guitar, drums, a few keyboards and a bass — its three members transform California’s normally sunny surf rock into something dank and infected, chords hanging in the miasma, riffs clanking chains in damp, moldering basements. The band is said to have first convened at a punk/goth club called Death Rock Booty Call, founders Pat Crawford and Jeff Wagner drawn together by a shared love of The Birthday Party. Not surprisingly, there’s a good bit of Nick Cave’s theater of the macabre here, along with shreds of The Cramps’ campy horror movies, Lydia Lunch’s pulp fiction, and Bauhaus’ morbid dramas.
Fathoms Deep is The Tunnel’s second album, the first to feature third member Sam Black on keyboards and bass. The addition of Black (and before him, occasional contributor Josh Layton) has intensified the sound and sharpened its No Wave menace. Listening to “Train Won’t Stop,” from the band’s self-titled debut in 2007, you hear considerably more of a country-blues influence, leaning more towards Dylan than Swans. (Bottleneck bluesy “Scurvye Dreams” on Fathoms Deep is the main remnant of this style.) Wagner, the singer and guitar player, spits and slurs and sneers his way through the cut, his voice a distinctive part of the package. Yet there’s a thinness to the arrangements — at that time just guitar, voice and Crawford on drums — that has disappeared by the second album. Fathoms Deep is sharper, harder and heavier — and altogether more successful.
The album feels conceptual, as if a sci-fi narrative might connect the surf-haunted “Wraithes,” blustering “King of the Impossible” and keyboard-led and lyrical “Fathoms Deep.” And even if no story links these tracks, there is an unmistakable sense of sloping upward during the album’s first half. You can tell, even one or two listens in, that everything is building toward a climax, with staccato rhythms tightening the tension and lurid scenarios turning ever more fantastical. It all leads into “The Beast-Catcher,” the disc’s clear highlight.
“The Beast-Catcher” is The Tunnel’s “Sympathy for the Devil,” the latest in a long line of rock songs to display a serious crush on the Prince of Darkness. It starts tranquilly enough, a conversation between piano and guitar, the one venturing a phrase, the other answering civilly. And then there’s a drum roll, as the cut twitches to life, the guitar coming in with a surfy, spaghetti western vamp. Wagner talk-sings through his narrative, slurring and tonguing over the words as if they taste too good to spit right out immediately. He plays with his audience, leading them to expect one phrase, then switching abruptly to another. Nonetheless, a clear picture emerges of the not-quite-man in wing-tipped shoes who stalks the alleys and byways of The Tunnel’s sordid imaginings. Wagner also has a way of emphasizing odd words in a phrase, taking them out of context and twisting them into something else. “He’s not interested” (making that last word sound particularly foul) “in innocents or virgins / they’re not the ones for who he is searching.” The “who” pops in an especially fried and manic way, punctuated by rampaging drum runs and hose-blasts of off-kilter guitar.
There is some good stuff after “The Beast-Catcher” — the undertow menace of “The Bitter End,” the late-night smolder of “A Storm” — but the disc is clearly tailing off as it ends. It’s like a story that builds to cataclysm, then slowly unwinds the details. It’s a scary, if abstract one, full of post-apocalyptic images and drawn like a magnet to the pull of evil. There’s no light at the end of this Tunnel, just a dank, dripping dread and something waiting in the shadows.