They say it’s important to remain challenged, to help stave off boredom and keep the motivation and creative fires burning. Life certainly throws up plenty of challenges without invitation in our fast-paced and volatile modern world. But with music, and extreme metal, in particular, we have a unique outlet and greater control to challenge ourselves. Unfortunately, it’s easy to rest on our laurels and stay firmly entrenched in our comfort zones. While I regularly delve into brutal, progressive and technical waters and consider myself to have diverse tastes across the metal spectrum, my listening diet these days features less of the forward-thinking, avant-garde weirdness and off-kilter experimentation that I used to consume regularly. There was a time where I couldn’t get enough of the grindy, tech shit Willowtip records spewed out consistently during the early to mid-aughts. However, with upcoming releases from Pyrrhon and Dodecahedron, 2017 is shaping up as a good time to reconnect with the strange wiring and ambitious innovation that can make such music so absorbing and challenging. Enter Minneapolis newcomers Sunless, who captured my interest via their impressive two song demo last year and are now ready to launch their debut LP, Urraca.
Sunless immediately separate themselves from the typical progressive and technical death pack, boasting a sound tailor made to unsettle the brainwaves. Drawing influences from the mighty Gorguts and Ulcerate, while carving their own distinctive pathway, Sunless construct a dense, borderline chaotic and complex sound, guiding the listener on an odd aural trip filled with strange harmonies and chord progressions, crunchy discordant notes, inventive drum patterns and wildly technical musicianship, whipped into difficult to decipher, unconventional song structures. It makes for a jarring, tricky listen that showcases a band with the guts, chops and ambitious songwriting skills to pull it off in a cohesive fashion, despite the schizoid, disjointed nature of the beast. There’s so much going on within each song, that even the shorter, more compact cuts like “Aberrant Clime” and “The Ancient Ones” are overflowing with musical ideas, knotty technicality, and unexpected twists.
Although Urraca isn’t catchy in a traditional sense, it rewards repeat listens and attention to detail, with the occasional shimmering atmospheric melody, hypnotic rhythm or mutating riff serving as suitable pay-offs for the patient listener. Drop-on-a-dime riff and tempo changes are the norm and though occasionally bordering on the impenetrable, the trio manages to keep the songs on the rails. Yet amidst the technical fireworks, jarring dissonance and off-the-wall song structures, Sunless are still a death metal band through and through, with an ample supply of beastly growls, blast beats, unsettling vibes and explosive bursts of speedy aggression and heavy riffs on offer. Urraca’s choppy nature and lack of accessibility plant the album in the niche market of experiment prog and tech death that will likely be a stumbling block for the average metalhead, but for the more adventurous listener, the album delivers. And while the 44-minute run time can lead to some listening exhaustion as your brain tries to play catch up, the payoffs are substantial and the album flows quite fluently.
Urraca is best consumed as a whole due to the abstract and unconventional style of the music, where listening to isolated tracks and picking out highlights is more difficult than your everyday metal album. That said, the mutating riffs and strange hypnotic flow of “Magpie” and the jarring, cavernous lurch of “Obsidian Wing” are a pair of knotty, oddly addictive standouts. Epic closer “Disintegration of Man” is another strong showcase of the instrumental prowess and progressively offbeat songwriting that defines Sunless’ unique brand of death metal. Despite their currently unsigned status, every part of the Sunless package smacks of professionalism. A poor production job could have easily derailed the album, so thankfully the Sunless lads tapped engineer Adam Tucker and the always excellent Colin Marston (mixing & mastering) to bring Urraca to life, and the results are excellent. The instruments are afforded plenty of breathing space and clarity within the mix, the tones are refreshingly natural sounding and punchy, while the impressive dynamics ensure ear fatigue doesn’t become a problem.
Sunless have reignited my passion for strange, experimental and abstract extreme metal with a confident and frequently engaging album. Consistently very good and occasionally great, Urraca is an accomplished debut that demands your time and attention to unlock the myriad of intricacies hidden within the jolting barrage. It’s by no means a comfortable listen, but the rewards are well worth the extra effort.