Aaron Turner has nothing to prove when it comes to making heavy music. Even when he himself is not actively putting out albums under the ever-broad “metal” umbrella, his influence is acutely felt in several genres, particularly post-metal, which his band Isis essentially spearheaded throughout much of the ’00s before their disbanding in 2010. While post-metal, much like post-rock, has become inundated with swarms of copycats that don’t do much beyond crescendo theatrics, Isis’ legacy hasn’t tarnished a bit.
In addition to Isis and the punishing music of Old Man Gloom, Turner is involved in several non-metal projects, such as the experimental duo Mammifer (where he is joined by his wife and regular collaborator Faith Coloccia), Lotus Eaters, House of Low Culture (with Coloccia, Sunn 0)))’s Stephen O’Malley, and Old Man Gloom’s Luke Scarola), and Greymachine (a project helmed by Godflesh frontman Justin Broadrick), to name a few.
Given that Isis’ career came to a close just five years ago, as well as the fact that Turner hasn’t stopped making music (heavy or otherwise) since then, the proclamation that came with the announcement of his latest project is a bit curious. Sumac, which finds Turner joined by Baptists drummer Nick Yacyshyn and Russian Circles bassist Brian Cook, “came to form when Aaron Turner had the urge to create music that’s heavy and colossal once again”, according to the press materials for the trio’s debut, The Deal. Of course, as the press release goes on to qualify a sentence later, Turner is still active with Old Man Gloom, who released The Ape of God just last year. (The album’s release also marks one of the most memorable musical pranks of recent years.) What then, does Sumac offer that makes it a distinctive entry in Turner’s still-growing ouevre?
In many ways, The Deal lands somewhere in between the music of Isis and Old Man Gloom. With Sumac, the sludgy heaviness of the latter coalesces with the often nonlinear song structures of the former. There are no shortage of magnificent crescendos in Isis’ strongest tunes, but that group never confined itself to the ubiquitous quiet-to-heavy playbook that has become the bane of instrumental rock and metal. (Even when they did do things by the book, like on the masterful Panopticon track “In Fiction”, it still feels fresh.) The line on the family tree connecting Sumac and Isis isn’t too long, but Turner is taking on a new directive with this trio.
Much of The Deal consists of Turner, Cook, and Yacyshyn exploring the space of the studio to a maximal degree. While there is a particular ebb and flow to the music of Isis, Sumac writes pieces that sound like they’re being written as they happen. In an interview with Empty Lighthouse Magazine, Turner describes this kind of music as “heavy [and] riff-oriented”, the latter adjective being the key operator in the context of this LP. Take “Thorn in the Lion’s Paw”, the second track on the album, which follows the brooding teaser “Spectral Gold”. This juggernaut of a piece (just shy of 12 and a half minutes) opens with an ominous piano note, which ring for a few seconds before the audio abruptly cuts out. The piano note then comes back a second later. Here, the trio uses silence as a driving engine to the starting rhythm of the song; when Turner’s guitar plays off this rhythm about 30 seconds in, the dynamic of The Deal is firmly established. The four ten-plus minute tracks that make up the core of the record operate in a similar fashion, pulling apart the intricacies of one rhythm before segueing into a new one.
Moreso than Isis and Old Man Gloom, Sumac is very much about The Riff. The free-form and mercurial nature of these pieces — and yes, this is the kind of music where “piece” is more apt a word than “song” — centers on Turner’s expeditions into the capabilities of the metal guitar vocabulary. For that reason, The Deal is perhaps best described as a heavy metal science experiment. With every piece on the album, Turner takes one foundational riff and experiments with it until he’s reached a point where the trial and error has run its course. For example, the opening passage of the title track features Turner doing variations on the simple guitar technique of palm muting. Where normally palm muting is used to add intensity or tension to a tune, here Turner uses the it to form a hypnotic riff that, in its own way, is as jarring as the downtuned riffs that bookend it. On paper these choices don’t sound all that flashy in a technical sense, but as they play out on The Deal they’re entrancing to listen to.
The loose structures of these tracks, however, as a much a source of weakness for the album as they are a boon to it. Because the four lengthy pieces are highly exploratory, often they tread the line between fascination and meandering. Once the trio gets into the groove of a tune, as it does on “Thorn in the Lion’s Paw”, it crafts beautifully brutal and visceral metal, of the caliber that Turner has earned his renown for. Yet on the whole The Deal is most memorable for individual highlights within its compositions, rather than its whole. The various fascinations the band hones in on prove rewarding to listen to more often than not — provided one likes her musical adventures quake as heavily as possible — but by the time the album has concluded its runtime, it’s much easier to identify smaller standout plots of the sonic landscape rather than vast wholes. Considering how much The Deal rumbles, it’s unsurprising that it’s a bit of a bumpy ride.
Fortunately, these explorations are given firm ground in Yacyshyn and Cook, a rhythm section that should be the envy of any metal band. Cook has more than proved his bonafides as a bass slinger, particularly with his near immaculate record with Russian Circles. Yacyshyn’s Baptists have become a new favorite in the world of hardcore, and if his contribution to Sumac is any indication there’s still plenty more to be heard from him. (Whatever he does, your ears will ache, but they will thank you in the end.) It doesn’t hurt that Converge guitarist and all-around metal producer extraordinare Kurt Ballou mixed the record. Even when The Deal slips up in its free-flowing, improvisatory movement, one fact remains true: this is three of the sharpest minds in heavy music coming together to make something new and exciting.
The erratic but ultimately thrilling journey of The Deal can be likened to cave-diving. If one intentionally goes into dark caverns, he’s gonna run into rough, unfamiliar, and even terrifying territory. But if one can put up with scrapes from stalagmites and stalactites, all the injury will be worth it. Of course, a project like Sumac isn’t meant to pander to lax expectations: if music this bone-rattling didn’t leave a few physical impressions on the listener, would it be doing its job? Jumping into the inky blacks of The Deal is the kind of experience that proves the classic dictum: with risk comes reward.