Sunless – Ylem Review

Death metal enthusiasts who favor the tech death and unconventional, dissonant flavors of the genre have been well served in 2021. Whether the likes of Ad Nauseam, Headshrinker, Replicant, Diskord, Blindfolded and Led to the Woods, or any number of killer tech and melo-tech death albums that have stormed the scene is your bag, it’s been a fruitful year. And we still have Archspire and First Fragment to deal with. Back in 2016 I stumbled across the promising demo from Minnesota’s Sunless, a fractured example of violent, dense and dissonant death. Urraca, their 2017 debut LP, expanded on the promise of the demo in appealing ways, firmly placing Sunless on the radar. Now they return, fittingly backed by Willowtip Records for their anticipated sophomore album, Ylem, dubbed the second part of a conceptual trilogy.

Like their previous works, Sunless pull no punches, launching the listener into the controlled chaos, rhythmic complexity, and warped technicality of their unique brand of evolved, experimental death. The tone is set immediately on propulsive opener “Spiralling into the Unfathomable,” a rippling slab of raw, unhinged brutality, boasting an ever shifting, contorting arrangement locked in a challenging, but weirdly listenable capsule. In many ways Sunless remind me of certain acts from the early days of Willowtip, such as Crowpath, Kalibas and Sulaco. They each carry their own identity, yet share common values in their combination of streetwise grit, grindy eruptions, jaw-dropping technicality, and densely layered compositions. Perhaps a little more polished and less chaotic, nevertheless Sunless create challenging, compelling death metal, casting an eye towards constant innovation and progression.

Core elements of the sound Sunless established with Urraca are carried over, however a newfound maturity, melodic focus and refinement is evident, while retaining their aggressive edge. “Ascended Forms” opens with a mean, riffy groove the mighty Suffocation would be proud of, before venturing into dense, pummeling terrain, featuring impressive technicality and pulsating twists. A knotty progressiveness permeates each meticulously constructed tune, revealing crafty writing dynamics and an addictive pull, compensating for lack of traditionally catchy hooks. There is more prominent use of melody infiltrating the rugged, bone-jarring exterior, while a playful progginess lends itself to a fun listening experience when your brains aren’t getting bashed in. Über proficient musicianship is the standard for the style, and the bag of tricks, skills and chemistry shared by the trio impresses. Vocalist/guitarist Lucas Scott’s serpentine axework probes, stabs, hypnotizes and grooves through intricate dimensions of discordance, psych washed melodies, catchy riffs, and gut-punching grooves. Bassist Mitch Schooler and new drummer Taylor Hamel are not to be outdone, producing one of the more compelling rhythm section performances I’ve heard on an extreme metal album this year.

Best absorbed front to back without interruption, Ylem‘s individual entities hold their own under close examination. “Atramentous” demonstrates Sunless‘ uncanny knack of shaping  coherent, addictive tunes out of seemingly disparate ingredients; stuttering rhythms, techy dissonance and short-circuiting guitars collide with a perfectly integrated melodic break and trademark grooves. Hypnotic passages of percussive complexity and nuanced interplay between bass and guitars feature prominently on the album, gripping on tightly constructed gems like “Flesh Particle Amalgamation.” Amidst the technical mindfuckery and intricacies resides a band that never lose sight of their deathly instincts. This shit is heavy and often explosive, evidenced on the grindy, blast-laden bloodlust of “Forgotten (Remnants of Life)” and weighty, almost mathcore meets death metal heft of the appropriately named “Perpetual Contortion.” Sunless relish in the extended instrumental passages, pushing their skills to the limits and creating a delicious contrast with their more extreme inclinations. Despite their idiosyncratic traits and unconventional song structures, Sunless let the compositions breathe and flow with remarkable fluency, embracing an almost jammy vibe, while regularly dispensing rugged, impactful riffs and grooves.

The production is a delight of punchy, organic tones, dynamically mastered and encased in a balanced, well defined mix. Drawbacks are minimal, with no major concerns to report. I might give a slight edge to the album’s first half, but the quality remains strong. Meanwhile, I like Scott’s acidic, slightly blackened growls but every now and then I crave a bit more variation or even a high-low dynamic. Nitpicks hey? Ylem marks another expertly constructed opus of techy, dissonant, and ;progressive death from an immensely talented trio that shoot high and deliver on their lofty ambitions.


Rating: 4.0/5.0
DR:| Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Willowtip Records
Websites: sunlessband.bandcamp.com | facebook.com/sunlessband
Releases Worldwide: October 29th, 2021

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