One of the more interesting releases of 2018 was the collaboration of SUMAC, the project of Aaron Turner (ISIS), Nick Yacyshyn (Baptists) and Brian Cook, with iconic Japanese musician Keiji Haino. While collaborations featuring Haino might usually result in the musician taking charge and forcing the other collaborators to follow his lead, in Amercian Dollar Bill – Keep Facing Sideways, You’re Too Hideous to Look at Face On, SUMAC displayed resistance to that effect. The result was a balanced record that stood between the heavy post-metal weight and the deeper extreme, experimental rock notions.
However, the after-effects of their collaboration with Haino still appear to resonate for SUMAC. The band initially started by exploring the heavy sludge-oid post-metal territory with their excellent debut record The Deal. Even though the record did not explicitly feature more experimental motifs, it appeared that the ground was being prepared for something more extravagant. In 2016 SUMAC returned with a more well-rounded record in What One Becomes. Moving slightly away from the pummeling strength of The Deal, the album showcased an investigatory sense that came in the adaptation of a ’70s psyched out motif in the excellent “Blackout”. However, the switch that they now make with their third record, Love in Shadow, is much more prevalent.
The foundations of the band’s sound are still built upon the sludge influenced post-metal structures, which is obvious from the moment the monstrous “The Task” opens this record. Considering Turner’s time with ISIS that is no surprise of course, while at the same time the rhythm section of Yacyshyn and Cook lay down variations within the otherwise repetitive, circular progression. The opening track is an example of that modus operandi, with the guitars erecting this impressive wall of sound while the drumming adds more variation with its complex performance. The beginning of “Attis’ Blade” is such an instance with the sludge riffs colliding with Yacyshyn’s fluid rendition to create a properly overwhelming moment of heavy music outbreak. The dissonant leads further highlight the imposing characteristic of the band’s sound while the towering bass lines in moments like the start of “Arcing Silver” cause the soundscapes to shake in their presence.
Where Love in Shadow deviates is the free rock aesthetic that SUMAC introduce. After the initial sludge onslaught of “The Task”, the band breaks down into a full improv mode leaving behind their constrained structures. It is a theme that SUMAC investigates time and time again throughout this record, with Turner taking the lead and deconstructing the band’s identity before Yacyshyn and Cook join into this effort. For example, the guitar lead in “Attis’ Blade” slowly melts away the band’s sludge form and allows them to move into a different conceptual dimension influenced by Haino’s concepts.
At the same time with this newfound improvisational aspect of SUMAC, the band further explores ambient passages through a free rock lens. The solitary guitar parts in “The Task” showcase this exploration of the soundscapes, performing an impressive build-up to the heavier moments of the track and then constructing a darker ambiance around them. Then at times, the guitar leads appear subliminally, slightly under the surface of the music and manage to create a dramatic tension while the heavy drums and bass carry on their unearthly procession. Another interesting twist in this atmospheric direction is the inclusion of the organ at the end of the opening track, creating a great contradictory moment between the serene sound of the organ and the harsh vocals.
But, this ambient side also meets with the free rock concepts resulting in some furious renditions, as is the case with the fantastic start of “Ecstasy of Unbecoming”. In this instance the band brings to the fold the heavy noise element, actually moving their sonic textures closer to Turner’s House of Low Culture project. Then, in a more rock form with “Arcing Silver”, SUMAC move the noise aspect into the rock trajectory, another aspect that they appear to have inherited from their collaboration with Haino, and dive into an experimental, noise rock rendition as improv elements appear. The ending of the track, in particular, is spectacular, channeling the weight of sludge and the dissonant edge of noise rock to present a relentless experience.
In performing this alchemical experiment of coalescing the heavy structures of post-metal with the chaotic renditions of free rock and noise, SUMAC can break new ground. As impressive and imposing The Deal and What One Becomes are, Love in Shadow stands in a league of its own. The change of perspective, the stylistic deviations and the smooth transitions between different modes make Love in Shadow appear as a pivotal record for the band. And while this new space that SUMAC has introduced presents numerous further possibilities, it feels that they have in part fulfilled their potential with this release. The question now is where they can take it from here?