Music Review: SUMAC The Healer

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It might have never been reasonable to expect Sumac to be conventional, as it combines forces between Aaron Turner and Nick Yacyshyn, the drummer of Baptists, and the bassist Brian Cook (Russian Circles, previously in Botch). Turner‘s prior involvement in bands like Isis and Old Man Gloom, which span the genres of post-metal, sludge, and eccentric hardcore, certainly points to a more imaginative perspective on heavy riffs.

There seems to have been a clear divide in the trajectory of Sumac – pre-Keiji Haino and post-Keiji Haino. Their initial collaboration with the Japanese experimentalist appears to have inspired them to move beyond the prog-sludge metal sound of their 2016 album What One Becomes. The method Sumac took on Love In Shadow (2018) and May You Be Held (2020), focusing on free improvisation and noisy sound constructions alongside powerful heaviness, has proven to be worth exploring.

The argument for the relative accessibility of The Healer does not lie in its conventional nature, but rather in its longer duration and shorter tracklist which allows for a gradual immersion compared to their previous works. Admittedly, this also means that 7 minutes of the 26-minute track “World of Light” is dedicated to ambient feedback. Similar to other abstract doom bands like Khanate, these moments of silence and stillness create a calming atmosphere, building anticipation before an explosive release.

Whether it’s a burst of unrestrained percussion and lingering guitar melodies, or a more traditional doom metal rhythm, a cathartic moment is always at the core of Sumac‘s carefully crafted compositions. Some of this catharsis comes from the raw vocal delivery of Turner, showcasing his most primal performances yet with unsettling screams, growls, and snarls. However, a significant part also stems from the memorable nature of the riffs once they fully manifest themselves. While “catchy” may not have been associated with Sumac for a while, they manage to provide just enough stability amidst the turbulent waters. Despite the 20-minute journey, the culmination is highly satisfying. Surprisingly, hints of Mastodon-esque guitar shredding emerge towards the end – a delightful surprise following such an intense voyage.

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What sets Sumac apart from other experimental metal groups is their evident musical prowess and attention to detail. While the extended introduction of “Yellow Dawn” might not be technically flamboyant, each note carries a sense of purpose within its improvised context. It evokes a feeling similar to recent Swans albums, although it’s unlikely Swans would perform at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival this upcoming Friday.

Beyond the unconventional textures and heavy riffs, there lies a blend of unpredictability and unshakable chemistry within Turner, Cook, and Yacyshyn‘s musical interplay. This explains their ability to transition seamlessly between introspective meditations, bone-crushing intensity, and frantic improvisations with equal finesse. Think of the riffs as the backbone of a free jazz piece. After discordant guitar solos, groovy bass lines, and dynamic rhythm shifts, Sumac always returns to the fierce realm of sludge.

Considering the extensive length of The Healer, “New Rites” feels like a direct plunge. Clocking in at the same duration as “Yellow Dawn,” this track encapsulates the most spontaneous aggression on the record. Here, the boundless energy of Yacyshyn‘s drumming truly shines. His impactful attack and thunderous fills punctuate the guitars and bass while harmonizing with the punishing assault crafted by Cook and Turner. Fans of the adventurous side of sludge metal are bound to find elements to relish in this track.

In contrast to many progressive bands that emphasize intricate melodies in their musical explorations, Sumac leans toward the brink of sonic chaos. The fleeting moments of tonal harmony in their songs are few and far between, as the band, when not traversing alternate dimensions, delivers riffs as devastating as anticipated.

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The manner in which riffs complement Sumac‘s approach can be likened to the later works of Miles Davis. The jazz maestro ventured into unchartered territories of musicianship, just as Sumac reshapes the sludge genre with unconventional harmonies and rhythmic outbursts. While Davis occasionally sought glimpses of his roots within his avant-garde expression, creating a cathartic full-circle moment, Sumac entwines hypnotic riffs following a profound expedition into the unknown. “The Stone’s Turn” doesn’t shy away from experimenting with metallic impressions, presenting extended segments of minimalist cymbal whispers and discordant string reverberations. The transition to a rhythmic three-count groove following a trippy collage of bluesy solos and anti-melodies is almost poetic.

Despite its peculiarities, The Healer ingeniously bridges the gap between pre-Haino and post-Haino eras of Sumac. It retains its wild essence, possibly even intensifying in the vocal realm, yet fans of riff-focused music who felt excluded in the past might find solace in this album. It’s invigorating to witness a band navigate through a musical landscape that deviates substantially from the norm with such a clear artistic vision.

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