Album Reviews

Sumac – What One Becomes

(Thrill Jockey) UK release date: 10 June 2016

SUMAC - What One Becomes There’s been barely a year between Sumac’s debut album The Deal, and this, their second full length. With such little breathing space, it would be entirely understandable for the band to suffer from a lack of quality or ideas on their second effort, but somehow they’ve not only consolidated on their initial statement of intent, but developed on it and delivered a labyrinthine album that, at times, takes the breath away.

Anyone familiar with the key players within Sumac shouldn’t be surprised at their creative capacity. Vocalist/guitarist Aaron Turner cut his teeth in ISIS and has released albums with Mamiffer and Old Man Gloom, Brian Cook’s pedigree includes Russian Circles and Botch, whilst Nick Yacyshyn of Baptists has been making Dave Grohl hot under the collar for the last few years with his phenomenal drumming. Yet, Sumac is not a supergroup where each player is an island, far from it; there is a unity here that can only really be appreciated by full immersion in their sound. Immersion is a requirement, because Sumac doesn’t really do songs or structure, these songs seem to drift wherever the mood takes them and the band’s temperament is constantly changing. Where some bands seem to drift through ideas and tones, Sumac remain keenly focused, and this is in constant evidence throughout the album.

The opening track Image Of Control initially lacks any semblance of order whatsoever during its first few minutes. Ideas are throw into the mix, discarded and replaced with noise. Discordant guitar squalls struggle for space as the band attempts to establish order. Eventually, Turner’s gurgle and a thunderous riff steps up to establish some kind of order and from here, the band roars through an apparently endless series of riffs and ideas that, were it not for the consummate skill they’re executed with would most likely end up a confused mess. Sumac’s unity is genuinely stunning, and the skill that togetherness that holds Image Of Control together (as well as much of this entire album) needs to be experienced to be appreciated.

Rigid Man, is a little more constrained and far less free-form, but is phenomenally heavy. Those hankering for gigantic riffs and an expansive oceanic sound will not be disappointed, particularly in the opening few minutes. The band pauses around the midsection for a little light ambient reflection, before returning with a flurry of brutal riffs. As an exercise in pace, restraint and release, it’s pretty much perfect. Clutch Of Oblivion keeps things a little more simple, opening up with a hypnotic stoner groove, it slowly develops into a more hot headed and aggressive charge before heading inwards again. It is perhaps the most accessible track on the album and doesn’t pull too many surprises. Nonetheless, it is perfectly performed with the changes in mood and direction pulled off expertly.

Closing track Will To Reach is a similarly moody piece, but is a more complex and agitated beast. For every crushing chord or howled vocal line, there’s some truly brittle and intricate guitar lines. Thanks to Kurt Ballou’s production and his use of the ambience of the recording space (the album was recorded in an old Catholic Church) the band’s more frantic moments during this song seem almost insignificant, as if they’re raging into the void. Not of course that this makes these moments any less thrilling.

Sat at the heart of the album is Blackout, a 17-minute epic that could be described as an over indulgence but perhaps showcases the sheer ambition of the band better than any other song on the album. From the vocal and drum intro the song winds through ambient guitar washes, pounding riffs, math rock segues, and prog-indulgence. At times it nods towards old-school hardcore (there’s one section that’s a ringer for Fugazi’s Give Me The Cure) and at others it’s like a twisted vision of Jane’s Addiction’s Three Days. As with every track on the album, the balance between self-indulgence, artistry, ferocity, and ambience is always kept in check.

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Sumac – What One Becomes