Chicago’s Black Sites is the brainchild of guitarist and singer Mark Sugar,1 formerly of underrated modern thrashers Trials. It could be that Sugar and I are roughly the same age, both grew up on shitty post-glory-days ’90s thrash metal and/or are both from the Midwest, but whatever it is he seems to speak my language. Trials‘ final album ended up on my Top 10(ish) in 2015 and Black Sites‘ debut found similar acclaim in 2017. A songwriter with two albums that placed at #2 in my Top 10(ish) lists in the year they were released is about as close to a direct highway to “elevated expectations” as it gets. And when Mark sent me Exile, I can say that I was very excited.
Exile is a step further across the bridge that Black Sites began welding on In Monochrome. Like its predecessor, Exile is a heavy metal album at its core. A classic four-piece, the band has two guitarists (Sugar and Ryan Bruchert [ex-Trials]) slinging riffs, a bassist (José Salazar) holding down the low end with a Steve Harris-esque presence. And supporting it all on drums is Garry Naples (Novembers Doom and Wolvhammer) who does a great job of moving between more tom-heavy ’90s vibes and straight up classic metal swing (“Feral Child”). Mark’s vocals—maybe best compared to John Bush’s stint in Anthrax—feature just enough reverb to give it a stadium feel without ever feeling cheesy. And the songs are edited tightly, with strong licks and hooks. Exile is as classic as classic heavy metal gets.
Exile‘s greatest strength is in memorable, timeless writing. And that, of course, is why we love classic heavy metal, too. In the tradition of Maiden, Rainbow and Priest, Black Sites is unafraid of their own pop sensibilities. They blend ample groove, chug and Voivod-worship (“The Night They Came for You” or “Focused Totality: The Psychic Knife”) with driving heavy metal (“Dream Long Dead”) and, of course, even straight homages to Tony Iommi (“Dwell upon the End”). Every single song on Exile is memorable and unique. Yet they come with all the nods to classic metal you could want. The guitar solos—maybe a step down from the tour de force of This Ruined World, but still excellent—are never superfluous or self-indulgent. And songs often feature unexpected twists and turns that make them interesting to listen to, as well as fun. “Feral Child” is the most obvious example of this, with its rhythm section that shuffles like classic Black Sabbath and its guitar interlude worthy of Piece of Mind. But every song on Exile is a litany of good ideas tastefully assembled. It’s an engrossing listen from open to close.
Great songwriting is often undermined by bad production, but Exile sounds fantastic. Engineered by Adam Stilson and Sanford Parker and produced by Sugar himself, the record has a sound that is undeniably heavy but also unique. Exile doesn’t sound like anyone trying to emulate a specific sound. As with the writing, Sugar’s production is idiosyncratic. Salazar and Naples stand out in the mix, lending everything a low buzz and ominous heft. Even at a DR6, courtesy of Colin Jordan’s master, the production manages to feel almost airy. Much of the balance in the mix is a matter of writing choices. For example, Black Sites often leave José Salazar’s bass unfettered by a guitar backing tracks while Sugar and Bruchert do their leads. This simple choice results, however, in a sound that feels vital, live and heavy.
Exile is a triumphantly classic heavy metal album that does not feel nostalgic. Mark Sugar’s super power is writing excellent, addictive thrash-laced heavy metal in his own particular idiom. As with his last two albums, Exile blends influences perfectly. Every tight riff, every dual guitar lead, every dramatic bridge with “Planet Caravan” vocal effects builds into a unit that makes Black Sites refreshing and idiosyncratic. I don’t know if Exile is better than In Monochrome. I don’t know if it’s better than This Ruined World. But I do know that I wish I could be making music like this, because Black Sites—Exile—speaks to me.