Sumerlands' debut album channels the history of metal music with subtley and style.
Sumerlands is a product of the combined creative acumen of the guitarist Arthur Rizk, a prolific producer and engineer, and the singer Phil Swanson, an indefatigable figure in the metal underground. The project works partly on the strength of the material and the performances, and appreciating them does not presuppose any knowledge of music history. But it also works partly as a profile of a particular moment of creative abundance and enlarged possibilities in metal music in the early 1980s. Rather than drawing from that period's most obvious sources, the album reveals a band digging deeper into those grizzled roots, finding inspiration in improbable places and spiking it with simple emotional resonances.
Rizk characterized Sumerlands as a "mid '80s project" and accordingly there is no proper name or designation for the style they have struck, nor is there a simple line from them to Black Sabbath or Judas Priest. At the risk of dilating excessively on genre nomenclature, the exercise is useful in this case in highlighting the band's curious selection of influences, and also because "old-school" or "traditional" are inadequate. So Kill'em All, Reign In Blood, and Terrible Certainty were rediscovered in the '00s as neo-thrash, and the NWOBHM has lately inspired bands like the Gates of Sumber, Slough Feg, and Grand Magus, and then more recently the singular Mercyful Fate was conjured by Ghost, In Solitude, Portrait, and others. Sumerlands exhibit elements from these and other still-vital currents in metal, but are not neatly slotted into any of them.
There is a more winding path towards Sumerlands. If there is a Black Sabbath influence, it's Dio or Martin-era Sabbath, and if there is an Ozzy influence, it's more the style and habit of Randy Rhoads or Jake E. Lee than of Ozzy himself. And where there is a mid-1980s element it must be the early albums from Fates Warning and Queensryche, mainly Night on Bröcken and The Warning. Sumerlands recalls these two bands when they were still exorcising their Maiden and Priest obsessions, and just before they claimed their well-earned eminence as pioneers of progressive metal. Essentially, Sumerlands appreciates Ozzy without Black Sabbath, and Black Sabbath without Ozzy, and remembers proto-progressive music that even its principal authors, among them Jim Matheos and Geoff Tate, would prefer to forget. But these are nevertheless worthy departures into the back roads of early and mid-1980s metal music.
Swanson is not a singer who exhibits the sort of technical process of a Dio or an Arch, or of most progressive or classic doom metal singers. His is a workmanlike approach that emphasizes phrasing, melody lines, and simple hooks. With the exception of one passage in "The Guardian", in which he shifts the pitch up a few registers -- perhaps incautiously, where some listeners may be induced to wonder how a more bombastic singer may work over this material -- he sings with clarity and conviction in a mid-range. The lyrics also convey simple ideas in a straightforward and literal manner, and the directness of the language creates a plaintive and evocative effect. "The Guardian" describes a mournful struggle to preserve a connection with a departed person, "like a shadow in the distance", but the song ends ambiguously: "Someone watch over me, someone maybe you / Someone I never see, but still I reach out to / Someone, is it you?"
The simplicity of the question posed in such a plain language, the manner in which the narration opens with optimism and ends with doubt, combined with the reverb-heavy presentation of Swanson’s voice, and the repetition, altogether registers a melancholy effect. Certainly, in emotional content, we're now at some distance from the lyrical and conceptual matters that occupied much '80s metal, including those of Gillan, Martin, and even Dio.
There is a weakness in that "The Guardian", "Haunted Forever", "Blind", and "Seventh Seal" stand out so conspicuously as the best songs. The album is short at 32 minutes (including a semi-musical instrumental), and while brevity is an underrated virtue it also leaves narrow margins for songs like "Lost My Mind" and "Timelash" that do not leave the same impression. Such variance is mitigated somewhat by the consistent, coherent, and sombre mood sustained by the album over the course of its running time. But the riffs and melodies are simply and noticeably better, more memorable, and more inspired over here, than they are over there. "Seventh Seal" is the best album opener since Castle’s "Distant Attack", beginning with an oddly-timed cascading riff as the drummer and bassist lock in and out of sync in a manner reminiscent of Appice/Butler, before settling into the sort of galloping mid-paced riffs that underpin all of the songs. And the riffs are good, like Iommi in his better moments during Sabbath's lean years in the '80s, the guitarists demonstrating an uncanny ability to sound inspired while working in a relatively narrow idiom. The solos are exemplary and at their best they leap out like flashes of light between trees. The coda of "The Guardian", for example, is a brief guitar solo, a dramatic prelude to the song's abrupt ending, and to silence. It is an outstanding example of tasteful and intelligent use of the technique.
Hopefully Sumerlands is not a one-off. They band arrives with inspiration from '80s metal but as I have tried to show their influences are not entirely obvious, and they are not a self-consciously retro band. Nor, however, are they compelled to go much further than this, offering no innovations in style or substance. But from the autumnal cover art through to the rainy soundtrack that closes out the last instrument song, the entire presentation has the feel of skilled musicians executing a sound and a style carefully, with honesty and with feeling.