Subtlety isn’t a common approach when it comes to sludge metal, which rather favours blistering, distortion-focused guitars and thunderous drums since the notoriously volcanic heaviness of genre spearheads Electric Wizard and Weedeater. Although in a genre that finds it’s bands in a battle of extremes, seeing who can cause the most damage to the PA system with their amps, the 2010s have seen sludge been taken down a number of different avenues. We have Mastodon using it as a basis to conjure up progressive, multi-layered musical odysseys, Indian using noise experimentation to make it as hellishly freaky as possible, to Bongripper putting an emphasis on the direct riffs in creating a mood through repetition. However, we have Melbourne underground head-turners Sundr, dragging the style even further out to a much less assertive sound, yet a much more ethereal and tension-building experience on their vertiginous sophomore LP, The Canvas Sea.
This band brings together a powerful, dark mix of sludge and post-metal, but nicely contrast these heavy traditions with a strong ambient sensibility. Taking the cinematic aura of Mogwai, mixed with the slow-burning, brooding nature of post-metal acts in the vein of Isis and Cult of Luna but keeping it all in the realm of sludge. Sundr’s wide sonic palette is conducive to their immersive soundscapes, and allows their music to operate on different functions of listening. The murky textures and leisurely pacing help these tracks work comfortably for chilling mood-setting backdrops, while the progressive structures and dynamics throughout Sundr’s adventurous sounds create a motive for this album to actively explored.
The record’s opener “A Carrion Vulture” serves as a mission statement for what the band aims to achieve; unsettlement, fear and an ultimate expression of despair. The menacing riff that emerges without warning and with an odd groove, which rapidly assuages into droning, reverberated bass chords and clean guitars, proves this track to highlight the multiple facets of Sundr. The vocals throughout the record are hauntingly distant, throat-wrenchingly screaming over the top of the instrumentation. The drumming is sparse and rickety, particularly on the title-track with tribal rhythms that act less as a solid backbone and more as an addition to the dissonant, apocalyptic atmosphere. The real focal point of Sundr shines in the guitar work, as the roiled chords on tracks “I Still See Plagues” and “Corinthians” shroud the mix and sets off a stream of murky dissonance. There’s not much of a regard for finesse in the instrumentation, but Sundr seem to have a fine-tuned, original and well thought-out direction in their own creation of sludge/ambient.
There is a particular mental time and place for this band’s music to be optimally appreciated, and much like most sluggish doom/sludge metal, it is best for accompanying a contemplative or disheartening moment. Sundr’s fusion of ferocity and dejection culminates in a unique sense of unease, but ultimately results in a much milder take on a heavy style, one that’s much warmer on the ears. The band pushes sludge metal in the opposite direction to what were used to, turning the gain down and the eeriness up, and it pays off beautifully in it’s own esoteric way.