Since the death of Isis (the band), lead songwriter, guitarist and vocalist Aaron Turner had had his finger in all the post-metal pies. Whereas Isis, especially toward the end of their illustrious existence, became a lot more measured, ponderous, and — to an extent — clean sounding, Turner’s other endeavors (Greymachine, Mammifer, and Old Man Gloom) dwelled in stranger experimental spheres. Sumac have similar leanings. Formed in 2014, the three-piece, featuring Brian Cook of Russian Circles on bass and Nick Yacyshyn of Baptists on drums, send forth their sludge with noise, free-flowing mayhem, and lashings of experimentation. Love in Shadow is their third full-length, an intensification of the improvisational, free-form touches explored on What One Becomes. Earlier this year, Sumac collaborated with Japanese artist Keiji Haino. Haino‘s abstract, free-form abstract, free-form approach to music heavily influenced Love in Shadow. What you’ll find, when you open this Pandora’s post-metal box, is an hour of music split into four massive slabs. Structures, pre-rehearsed music is stitched together with passages of improvisation, recorded over five days in a single room, and carefully merged by Kurt Ballou. The goal: “Finding comfort in the negative spaces within each track’s borderland.”
Love in Shadow is a slanted, realistic representation of love in all its battered, ugly, inconsistent and warped beauty. Essentially, we all want to be loved yet so many of us find it difficult to find it, accept it, or show it. It’s a complex emotion and this is complex music. At their core, Sumac are a huge sounding sludge band — the frilly airiness of Isis is replaced by punishing, incessant noise: a brick wall. And this is how the record starts. “The Task” begins mid-eruption. It cranks and creaks with gargantuan force, combining rapid sludge grooves and licks with sharp industrial noise. Turner’s deep animalistic bellows fire from the maelstrom, writhing amongst off-kilter licks and crashing cymbals. A powerful start, but things soon drastically transform. At the seven minute mark, nothing but the sound of an out-of-tune guitar can be heard, reverberating through the abyss. Then a dirge. Guitars, bass and drums emerge from the “negative space.” Steadily, with the sound of guitars like a distant chainsaw accompanied by a more prominent cranking bass, echoing drums and sporadic primal cries from Turner, the song trudges forward. Brighter guitar melodies, disembodied, drift above this, the occasional note out of tune. Then, at the twenty-minute mark, the sound of an organ takes over. Turner abrasively snarls over this peculiarly beautiful outro. The end.
I’ve done this all wrong. This is an album that succeeds when left to wash over you — darkroom music. Trying to describe every movement, transition, and genre that features in a track does this record no favors, although you need something to cling to here. There are three more tracks of equally diverse and ambitious proportions to go! Letting it wash over you is vital, and you’ve really got to be in the right kind of mood to take this all in. Despite being 65-minutes long, there’s an organic and careful pacing to the album that makes this feel like a shorter listen. The record sounds great, too — it’s deep, rich and immersive, perfect for this type of meditative journey. Most impressive is the diverse range of noise that streams from the guitars. At times, the record sounds like a damned hybrid of psychedelic-rock, noise, drone and death metal. Every shard of sound from Turner’s guitar — particularly in “Attis’ Blade” — can be heard murmuring, moaning and shivering through the mix.
The rehearsed elements of the record are frequent and a heavy riff based sound is at the core of Love in Shadow. The industrial rigidity — droning, cranking, brutal — of the pre-planned sections is in direct contrast to the loose, improvisational reveries which writhe with pained, slightly off-key melody. Balance is key to a record like this, and Sumac get that balance right — they’re never too far away from the riffs and the conventional sounds. Some of the experiments are failures, though, especially when the experiments drift too far away from the crux of the “metal” sections. The improvised licks, particularly in “Arcing Silver,” occasionally sound sloppy. They offer nothing in the way of cathartic release, momentum building, or emotion creation — Turner and co. are able to fall back on their previous successes in other bands for sure. This is similarly the case during the closing meltdown of closing track “Ecstasy of Becoming.” When other instruments are introduced — such as the organ in the opener and psychedelic tones — Sumac‘s experimentation pays off.
I cannot fault the idea behind this album. It chews all the formulaic tropes and stereotypes of post-metal, swallows them, and spits them out in a repulsive, wonderful mulch — a reformed freshness emerges in Love in Shadow. It may not be perfect, but it’s certainly unique and undeniably powerful. Accompanied by a strong production which enhances the records on all sides, Turner and co. have crafted an album which breathes something new into the genre.