The overwhelming impression that What One Becomes gives is of deliberately plodding doom metal. It’s heavy like a man using chains to pull huge cinder blocks across an expanse of concrete. While that’s an evocative image, it’s not a particularly pleasant one. And so it goes with Sumac’s music. Former Isis guitarist/vocalist Aaron Turner handles the same duties in Sumac, except here his vocals include no singing at all; instead, it’s all throat-shredding death growls so guttural that Turner often sounds like he might be belching instead of growling. Then there’s the fact that the five songs here all hover around the ten-minute mark (except for the one that’s 17 minutes long) and have little interest in traditional song structure. Turner, bassist Brian Cook (Russian Circles), and drummer Nick Yacyshyn (Baptists) are clearly very skilled musicians, though, and that skill keeps What One Becomes compelling even though it’s a difficult listen.
Turner pulls no punches by opening the album with a crashing unison chord and then following it with several minutes of abstract noise. Forget traditional song structure; the first half of “Image of Control” has no song structure. Turner howls in the background while the band seems to improvise, pounding away until leaving Turner’s guitar utterly alone to play a true solo. Once Cook and Yacyshyn return, the rest of the song finally gains structure, as Turner’s solo becomes a riff the track builds around. Then Yacyshyn picks up the pace, finding a tom-oriented groove and making “Image of Control” suddenly listenable in its final third.
Second track “Rigid Man” nearly inverts this pattern. It begins with a grinding, slow crawl that, while not catchy, is at least recognizably a song. Turner belches over the top of this grind while guitar, bass, and drums all take turns with musical fills in the gaps (sometimes alone and sometimes as a trio). Around the halfway point, a squalling guitar solo fades out and the whole band goes quiet except for some faint strumming from Turner. This quiet section lasts for a good three minutes, very gradually getting louder until bursting into a final uptempo bit during the final two minutes. Hearing Yacyshyn and Cook lock in together in this bit is tantalizing, giving a hint of what this group could do if Turner wasn’t so doomy and experimental in this project.
The record’s other two 10-minute tracks, “Clutch of Oblivion” and closer “Will to Reach”, offer slightly different takes on this basic sound. “Will to Reach” begins with a pounding, steady drumbeat that is tripled by the bass and guitar for a powerful chug. This morphs into a slower, less compelling grind that then stops for another unaccompanied guitar solo. Once the rhythm section returns, the tempo is slowed even further, crawling along until Yacyshyn suddenly bursts into blast beats for most of the rest of the song. In general, the piece sounds like a group of interesting ideas thrown together into a single track without much regard for how well those ideas fit together. In contrast, “Clutch” begins with an extended, slow but relatively tuneful guitar riff, and the rest of the band (particularly Cook) enhances that basic riff (so they finally gets to add some melodic accompaniment to a song instead of just pounding the low end). “Clutch” is a smorgasbord of different heavy ideas as well, but here the different sections of the track seem to fit together in a way that makes musical sense, making the song the most consistent one on the album.
“Blackout” is the 17-minute monster. It doesn’t need to be 17 minutes long, but it has some interesting passages. The second section of the song is just Turner’s vocals accompanied solely by occasional pounding drums. Hearing his voice mostly unadorned is kind of fascinating, and one can almost make out the lyrics when the guitar and bass aren’t there. The band plays a lot with toggling between loud and soft through the opening chunk of the song, all while maintaining the same slow speed. Eventually the song pushes into a much faster section (although Turner and Yacyshyn chug along for way too long on the same repeated transitional note before something actually happens) and the band rocks its way through a pretty great southern metal passage (think: Kylesa and Baroness). From, there, it all slows back down and returns to the riffs of the first section of the song, except that Yacyshyn and Cook provide Turner with a nice groove to back up the riffs, making it much more listenable on the back end of the song. Of course, this groove goes on for way too long as well before finally fading out gently.
There is definitely material to like on What One Becomes, but, aside from “Clutch of Oblivion”, it’s scattered throughout longer pieces that are harder to enjoy as full songs. A cool section here and there is not enough to make the album worth a recommendation. Listeners who are already attuned to doom metal, abstract heaviness, and unstructured songwriting might get more out of Sumac than I did. I found it easier to appreciate than actually like.