The state of progressive or technical death metal is an interesting one as it has relatively quickly found the fancy of many modern musicians, swiftly becoming a well-canvassed style with no shortage of quality records. In no small part dominated by giants like Gorguts, Deathspell Omega, and Portal, the genre has also witnessed a number of promising upstarts in recent years, proving that even the undergrowth is strong. So much, that it felt as though any new sprout had to come from an unlikely place. Minneapolis-based trio Sunless seem to have found a crack in the asphalt through which to push their weedy heads with their full-length debut Urraca.
Sunless’ dissonant avant-death approach leaves few questions about some of their inspiration. For as many Sabbath-worshipping doom bands there are a mere two clicks away on Bandcamp, we should only consider ourselves lucky that we’re finally getting some worthy Gorguts-based worship in the death metal realm. More importantly, Urraca shows that the seeds sown by Luc Lemay & Co. have been thoughtfully cultivated, and the result is something much more than a flattering reinterpretation or derivative copy. In fact, what makes the album such a joy is where it deviates from simple imitation.
Specifically, the massively windy and spiraling nature of Gorguts’ recent output has been tamed into more easily digestible compositions without easing the learning curve. The arrangements retain segments that feel sadistically relentless and wearing without pushing runtimes into the double-digits—the result of engaging structures, frequent changes in direction, and absurdly-heady rhythms that’ll have listeners keeping their finger on the rewind button. It’s an unquestionably challenging listen with a glut of subtleties to be found (even after the umpteenth listen), but still just kind enough so the record doesn’t become a undecipherable mess where you’re obliged to listen to a nine-minute track to find that tasty 45-second passage.
Rhythmically demanding and often overwhelming, much of Sunless’ persistent assault stems from angular, warping patterns that are usually disorienting, but somehow still entrancing. Instead of solely crutching on suffocating listeners with confusing force, there are moments where they lock into some neck-snapping grooves akin to Meshuggah or Gojira (see “Wishes Fallen On Deafened Ears” or “The Ancient Ones”), breaking things up nicely. It’s not all a muscular display of rousing technical proficiency, however; tempos often skew toward a sludge-friendly clip, freeing up space to develop some of the more psychedelic dissonant leanings (“Magpie”), or even opportunities to dramatically shift gears from a trippy lull à la Inter Arma (“Obsidian Wing”).
The production makes the most of this three-pronged attack. Never do they sound thin or undermanned. Obviously, this is in part because they’ve written some ridiculous songs and execute them with awe-inspiring finesse, but it’s also because the Adam Tucker/Colin Marston combo is ungodly and lends well to some interesting dichotomies set up by the band. The natural tones of the rhythm section provide a suitable partner to the sharpness of the guitar and the harsh bellow of the vocals (which also nicely contrast the nature focus of the lyrics). The snare has a satisfying crack, and even at their most chaotic and intense, the cymbals maintain clarity and definition without burying the guitars. The bass is hearty and prominent, appropriately filling up much of the mix during the more woozy moments while the guitars dart and shift through, or canopy its counterparts. Balance proves to be crucial with a band of this size, and simply put, they’ve been served well.
With Urraca, Sunless focus their dazzling technical ability to writing concise and somehow time-bending songs. They have a knack for maneuvering weird rhythms with agility and flare while staying cognizant of the power of penning some awesomely grueling change of pace material. It’s a refreshing yet familiar take on technical death with psychedelic tendencies, worthy of a listen even if you’ve already surrendered to the genre. Do yourself a favor and take on another challenge.
[bandcamp width=100% height=120 album=2711151580 size=large bgcol=333333 linkcol=2ebd35 tracklist=false artwork=small]
Urraca is out February 24. Preorder it directly from Sunless’ Bandcamp page here.