As always, I’m dating myself with my taste in music, but so be it. Sumerlands is an unheralded act set to explode on the nostalgia-core scene with their self-titled release and let’s just say, I’m fully on board. Featuring Phil Swanson (Hour of 13, Briton Rites, et al) on vocals, Sumerlands plays exactly the kind of music I couldn’t get enough of in the late 80s/early 90s. It’s dark, brooding, traditional American metal with traces of prog and doom around the edges. The best way to describe them is early Queensrÿche mixed with the proggy quirks of Wicked Maraya, Syris and Lord Bane. Another obscure comparison, and the one the music keeps bringing me back to is the short-lived, wildly overlooked Cities. If asked to describe this debut in one word, I’d be forced to go with “classy,” for this is some seriously serious, elegant metal with both feet in a bygone decade. Some wags dubbed the style “sport coat metal” and I suppose that’s fair in the sense it’s very cerebral, introspective and heady stuff, but what matters is that the songs kick copious booty, and that they do, friends. That they do.
As soon as the opening strains of “Seventh Seal” greet your ears you’ll be transported back to the olden days via the style and vintage production which truly captures the sound of the era. It’s so precise it seems like an album from 88-89 I somehow overlooked and am only now discovering. The song itself is a humdinger for the style, with simple, propulsive riffing and the shockingly good vocals of Mr. Swanson carrying things to another level. The music is dark, deadly (and dated) and it really hits a nerve I thought had died years ago. There’s definitely a Queensrÿche influence but this is heavier and more commanding due to the low-register, ominous vocals. “The Guardian” keeps the quality high with another dim light rocker with a faint nod to Ozzy Osbourne‘s Bark at the Moon era. This element is even more present during “Timelash” where lead axe Arthur Rizk does an uncanny Jake E. Lee impression and runs all over the place with his melodic but forceful riffage.
“Blind” has that classic early Fates Warning gallop and punch and “Haunted Forever” is the darkest of the lot and one of the best, sounding like an emotionally broken Queensrÿche. The only false note is the awkward closer “Sumerlands,” which is a weird, ambient piece of synth-goth without vocals. It’s a strange way to finish off such a driving, aggressive platter and makes for an anticlimactic denouement. Other than that, it’s tough to find many flaws in the material itself.
The biggest victory here is the song writing. Every track (except the oddball closer) is an absolute winner full of mood, power and technical know-how. The faint traces of doom are the perfect compliment to the traditional style the band does so well and the proggy flourishes are equally well integrated. Better still, the whole thing runs just over 32 minute, so the whole “gosh, I wish this was longer” syndrome is firmly in place. I’m left hungry for more and could go for another 20 minutes of this stuff easy.
The vocals by Phil Swanson are an unexpected revelation. I’m very familiar with his work on Hour of 13 and Briton Rites but I’ve never heard him sound anything like he does here. At times he does his familiar Ozzy-like warble, but most of his lines are delivered in a powerful mid-range loaded with mucho maschismo and stylistically similar to Carl McCoy of Fields of Nephilim. He also reminds me a lot of Cities‘ Ron Angell and he even hits some of the same high-pitch wails on songs like “The Guardian.” His performance is nothing short of excellent throughout and gives the music an added depth and edge. I’m also wholly impressed by Arthur Rizk and battery mate John Powers. Rizk’s leads and solos are rock-solid and every song benefits from his classy, thoughtful fret-work. For a guy who spent most of his life producing rather than playing on metal albums, he has some major chops and a masterful ear for the olden ways.
Sport coat or no, Sumerlands is one of the biggest surprises of 2016 and guaranteed a prominent place on my end of the year list. The summer itself may be just about over, but thanks to Swanson and Sons, we’ll always have Sumerlands. I hope this is the start of a beautiful, old school friendship.