Man, I have been ready to love SUMAC for a while. This three-piece – Aaron Turner of ISIS, Old Man Gloom, Mamiffer, and a plethora of others; Nick Yacyshyn of Baptists; and Brian Cook of Botch, These Arms Are Snakes, and Russian Circles – has members of multiple all-time favorite bands of mine and comprises such a potent cocktail of talent that I was absolutely set from day one on this being one of the most exciting metal acts to come out of this decade for me. To an extent, it has been; the mere thought of collaborators like these getting together is enough to make most other bands pale in comparison.
The actual music, though, up until this point, hasn’t really risen to the bar that a pedigree of this nature demands. Sure, The Deal and What One Becomes were certainly competent albums, and coming from just any old band would be much more impressive. But neither album poses itself as much of a high mark in the career of any of the musicians involved in its creations. The former of the pair felt like Aaron Turner dusting off some solid old Red Sea-era ISIS riffs and getting good musicians to help bring them to life, but they lacked any real creative spark. What One Becomes, which came roughly a year and a half later, certainly had more of an identity about itself, but was too dark and primal for its own good, and unfurled its good ideas prematurely to hold much water as a full album. Their collaboration with improvisational master Keiji Haino, American Dollar Bill – Keep Looking Sideways, You’re Too Hideous to Look at Face On, was a step in the right direction, but whether or not it would be big enough to push the trio out of their comfort zone come their next full-length was anyone’s guess.
Then along came a new single: “Attis’ Blade.”
Oh my fucking God.
The swelling, tidal-wave lurch of an intro that goes for a full three minutes before we hear Aaron Turner’s arid, monotone rasp is perhaps one of the best pieces of tension-building in metal that’s occurred to this day. It’s all poised to explode, and for a second, it stops, and, you think, “Oh, Jesus, here we go” – but no. A lesser band – the SUMAC of yesteryear – would have seen the opportunity to go for a gut-busting riff, perhaps something akin to the crushing hammer-swings of palm-muted guitar that they’ve utilized many times before this. But this iteration of the band has learned exactly the right way to defy expectations, and instead, the track falls apart completely around the colossal heave-ho of Cook’s bass work, the drums flailing wildly and the guitar eating away at itself until nothing is left but churning seas of static and noise.
And then it all goes quiet. We’re almost halfway through the song at this point, and what we’ve seen so far is nothing and everything. I don’t want to say SUMAC have gotten smarter, because they’re musicians that have been at the apex of heavy music for God-knows-how-long, but yeah, they’ve gotten smarter. At the very least, they’ve changed substantially, and they’re willing to wile away half of a 15-minute song on a monster of an improvisational section. There’s certainly more free jazz influence at play here; I don’t think it would be out of the question to suggest that their sessions with Keiji Haino sent them back to the drawing board and helped shocked them out of the single-minded lumbering heaviness of their first two outings.
For three guys famous for their metal and punk prowess, we don’t get anything even remotely resembling structure here until almost ten full minutes into “Attis’ Blade.” Contrary to what you might think, this is extremely helpful. What in another context would just be a riff among riffs, here is crystallization; the glaciation of SUMAC’s fluidity into organized sound is intense, monolithic, crushing. When SUMAC finally come together and decides that now is the point at which heavy music occurs, they feel like a nigh-unstoppable force of nature. The last couple minutes of “Attis’ Blade” are almost surreal because of the amount of tension and release involved in them, and the quick march towards the end of the song is, on its own, an emotional highlight of this band’s career.
Once again: oh my fucking God. Taking “Attis’ Blade” as a cross-section of Love In Shadow, a very human sort of duality emerges. Intermingling moments of beauty and ugliness refract and illuminate one another, cold moments of melancholy mingle with brief passages of disarming warmth. Sonically, tonally, there are definite similarities between Love In Shadow and SUMAC’s previous work, but tempered with so much more grace and ingenuity and attention than their previous albums that they feel like a completely different beast altogether.
I don’t like throwing around the word “mature” in reference to music, because I feel as though too often it’s misapplied and is simply a way of politely saying a band has become more palatable over time, but I’m not exactly sure there’s a better word for Love In Shadow when compared to SUMAC’s previous work. And, in fact, the opposite has happened: the further they go from the methodical work of their previous records, the more they seem wrapped up in their own head. Love In Shadow is built out of knotted, tangled suites that are more thorny and standoffish than anything they’ve written to date, even as the whole record feels so much more alive. Where SUMAC’s first couple albums were inoffensive but inconsequential, Love In Shadow is demanding but necessary. Anybody interested in metal’s more cerebral, philosophical, meditative side owes it to themselves to dive deep into the emotional, cold, beautiful, ugly, painfully human music that SUMAC creates on Love In Shadow.
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Love In Shadow comes out on September 21st. You can get merch and pre-order the album through SUMAC’s bandcamp page.