We’ve all had those moments when you just know a band is for you. Richmond, Virginia’s Inter Arma provided me with such a moment the first time I spun their 2013 full length Sky Burial. After the sludgy progressive doom of the first track, two-part “The Long Road Home” gobsmacked me by sidling up with an acoustic southern rock groove that gradually built to full Crazy Horse gallop. But in lieu of Neil Young’s reedy tenor, the instruments grew heavier and more beastly before finally sprouting massive leathery wings over full throated screeches and blackened blast beats for the suite’s final three minutes. It was certainly an attention grabbing moment, but it was also a statement of intent. Inter Arma will not be pigeonholed. They’ve repeated this statement with each subsequent release, evolving subtly across a range of styles, but always sounding unmistakably like themselves. When a new album was announced for 2019, I quickly contacted resident man cat Grymm, who glowingly reviewed 2016’s Paradise Gallows, and
pathetically begged confidently informed him that I would be handling this one. He pitied me respected my assertiveness and relinquished review duties.
Sulphur English is the band’s fourth full-length, and their most singular statement to date. The Neurosis-y post-metal sludge foundation is intact, as is the crawling doom, but Inter Arma‘s drift toward cavernous death metal that began on Paradise Gallows continues here, making this a harrowing work compared to their past material. This is heavy, scraping music that pushes forward like a tectonic plate. After a brief but appropriately stark intro track, “The Waxen Sea” finds the band processing death/doom through their own unique filter. It’s a churning number that trades bludgeoning drums and riffs with undulating guitars that evoke oceanic movement, though it never feels soothing. “Citadel” continues the onslaught with a lead-footed stomp that may be the heaviest moment in the band’s career. Vocalist Mike Paparo always had an interesting range of delivery, from course shout-roars to a high pitched blackened screech, but his death growl takes center stage in the early going of Sulphur English, further defining this as Inter Arma‘s most brutish offering.
If you’ve ever seen them live, you’ll know that “ritualistic” is an apt descriptor for the experience. This has largely to do with drummer TJ Childers, who pounds and sways as if possessed, filling even transitions between songs with thundering incantations. This live energy has been fantastically captured on Sulphur English, and no song highlights it better than “Howling Lands.” Menacing riffs act in service to Childers’ booming kit, while Paparo’s vocals alternate between piercing bird-of-prey screams and solemn, urgent chant-singing that conjures the spirit of Nick Cave. The band has adopted a darker, more brutal approach all around, but album centerpiece “Stillness” is the one island of respite in these tempest-tossed proceedings. But although it leads with an acoustic guitar and clean singing, its southern prog rock is still imbued with the same ritual fever found album-wide. Lyrically, it’s a song to the earth and its cycles. If this music were a scent, it would be wood smoke, Appalachian hyssop and the sharp tang of blood.
Sulphur English is an exceptional album from top to bottom. Negatives are hard to find, but if there is one, it’s the toll the 67-minute runtime takes. This is a challenging album, as much in the existential as the physical sense. The post-“Stillness” half has its share of excellent moments, especially the build up in “Blood on the Lupines,” but it does mirror the first half a touch closely. At twelve and a half minutes, “The Atavist’s Meridian” is the longest track with the slowest build, and its fantastic final minutes could possibly land harder with some trimming early on. Still, this is nitpicking. Truth be told, there isn’t any weak material to be found here.
Inter Arma has given us their most unified vision to date with this dense mass of concentrated foreboding. It’s not an easy album by any means, but it’s their best in an already strong career. I wavered between the score below and an even higher one, so think of this as a 4.25. Sulphur English shows us a chimerical, yet consistently solid band at the height of their powers. You’ll be seeing it again when it’s time to discuss AOTY.