Given the huge cult followings of metal pioneers like Isis and Botch, it’s honestly quite puzzling why Sumac didn’t completely explode last year with their debut LP, The Deal. It felt like some of frontman Aaron Turner’s most inspired and chaotic material ever, constantly ebbing-and-flowing between angular/dissonant hardcore and pummeling sludge riffage, all while being encompassed in a horrifically claustrophobic atmosphere. The Deal really did feel like Turner’s songwriting was rejuvenated in a lot of ways, and now that’s undeniably apparent considering the band is already dropping almost an hour’s worth of new material just over a year after the last album. Though many writers here at the blog have said bands should spread their releases out more, Sumac has completely shattered this idea. What One Becomes doesn’t feel like a lot of leftover ideas and jams from sessions gone by; it feels like a group of musicians hitting their stride and starting to really gel together as a unit.
For starters, the recording quality of What One Becomes is spot-fucking-on. Recorded at an old and unused Catholic Church now known as The Unknown in Anacortes, Washington, the album’s ambience, density and overall sense of size is largely due to the massive room in which this was recorded in. The mixing by metal mastermind Kurt Ballou (of Converge fame) perfectly captures the massive soundscapes that are brought forth throughout the album’s five slabs of menacing fury. You can really feel the sense of grandiosity and dread brought forth by this room particularly in the minimalistic intro to “Blackout,” a 17-minute monstrosity that kicks off with some of the most cavernous drum tones and hair-raising screams around. Luckily though, things don’t get completely out of hand when the band starts to kick up the pace. The band’s technical moments are never lost in a sea of noise and the interplay between turner and Brian Cook always cuts through perfectly (an impressive feat considering the album’s highly dissonant and jarring tendencies).
The most impressive aspect of What One Becomes simply has to be the interplay between Sumac’s three musicians, who have probably put on one of the tightest musical performances of the year with this release. There’s simply no denying that Turner’s cranking out some of his most technically demanding material of his entire career and that drummer Nick Yacychyn isn’t one of the hardest-hitting guys in the game. Maybe it’s the fact that these two guys are playing with the bassist of one of the mathcore’s progenitors, but regardless, there are passages in tracks like “Rigid Man” and “Blackout” that could leave plenty of prog-metal geeks in the dust. Fortunately though, these ideas are never used to show off how insane their chops are, but as a means to convey a sense of chaos and unease…and bring the chaos it most certainly does. It will be difficult for almost any other band to deliver material as purely crushing as this for quite a while.
In a lot of ways, the album feels less like a collection of five songs and more like an overall exercise in exploring textures, mood, and dynamic shifts. This couldn’t be better personified than with the album’s opener, “Image of Control.” Kicking off the album with an unexpected bout of improvisational noise, the song then cascades through sparse guitar leads, angular hardcore and chest-rumbling post-metal before collapsing into the heaviest musical moment of the year, bar none. Taken by itself, the track may feel a bit scatterbrained, but the overall pacing of the record really ends up justifying the band’s decisions which may at first seem a bit off-kilter. What One Becomes is most certainly an album that demands to be listened to from front to back in order to fully understand the band’s overall approach to songwriting. A track like “Clutch For Oblivion” might feel unreasonably long taken on its own with its meditative, desert-rock theme, but when placed in the middle of the entire album it serves as one of the only moments of reprieve that the album offers the listener. This is definitely not an album for passive listening, and it’s an incredibly cinematic experience. The way that Sumac can navigate through the free-form freak-outs of “Rigid Man,” the Baroness-esque outro to “Blackout” and the breathtaking blast beats during the closing moments of “Will to Reach” without ever feeling like they’re genre-hopping too much is simply astounding. Lesser musicians would never be able to infuse these seemingly-disparate ideas into such a cohesive whole, but then again, we’re talking about a particularly deadly trio here.
What One Becomes is an even more expansive outing than The Deal and really shows that Sumac is here to stay. With just ten songs and two albums now, they’ve become one of the most innovative bands to come out of the bong-huffing underground in quite some time and have really brought forth a much-needed spark back into the style. Turner helped shape the post-metal landscape of the past decade with his previous band, and if there’s any justice in this world, future riffsmen and riffswomen out there will borrow heavily from Sumac’s knack for fearless songwriting, crushing brutality and anxiety-ridden atmosphere. Sumac is the future.