Fun fact: When writing about the first collaboration between avant-rock/post-metal trio Sumac and free improv guitarist Keiji Haino, the file names were so long that I literally could not unzip the folder into Windows as it exceeded the character limit for file names. I had to unzip directly to my C:/ drive, outside of the Windows kernel, then modify the track titles with the command line before I could even port them back into Windows to listen to. That’s dedication to obscurantism and, frankly, I’m here for it.
To their credit, their earlier collaborations followed this mold sonically as well. Aaron Turner, who is commonly read as the bandleader of Sumac even if that isn’t necessarily true due to the continuity of this project’s aesthetic arc with his previous group Isis, long desired to move into more improvisatory ground, not unlike the fertile middle years of Isis’ life before growing fame and a fateful tour with Tool put them on the path of more and more structured progressive rock movements. While the group’s work before the intersection with Haino definitely was heading in that direction, with their debut The Deal being a more wild and hoary version of late-era Isis and followup record What One Becomes stretched the limits of their abilities as players, it was those two first Haino collaborations, recorded in the same sessions, that truly burst open the dam for the group.
In the intervening years, Sumac has released their two best records, Love In Shadow and May You Be Held, works that finally place this group on equal hallowed footing as Isis, wielding a fierce and untamed musical prowl against heaving improvisatory emotionalism, seeing the group absolutely vanish the distance between heart and hands. That’s what jazz is, at heart; the instantaneous transmission of thought and feeling into sound, learning a trust both of technical acumen as well as the sensitivity of your group dynamic to burrow into that sensuous unnameable thing. We hear “jazz-metal” and we think sometimes thrash with seventh chords and ninth chords and walking bass and the like; while this isn’t totally untrue and clearly is indebted to the sonic image of jazz captured within metal, what Sumac has been doing is, to be frank, the real deal, at once fully jazz and fully metal, as fitting on an alternate hyperbolically heavy ECM as on some illegible logo basement-run extreme metal cassette micro label. Haino, meanwhile, has released seemingly trillions of albums with everyone from jazz combos to Merzbow, as is his wont as an unstoppable and perpetually-recording guitar force.
Which brings us here. Clearly both camps came together again because they knew of the fruits of their past collaboration. The material was released in two pieces over a year apart, both to critical acclaim. Haino even got more involved in this rough sonic space, dabbling with work with figures far closer to Sumac’s world than his own in the wake and finding success there as well. Certainly there must have been some sense of unfinished business, untapped potential, or even just a check-in, to see where everyone stands with each other. To great satisfaction, this third round of recordings from the four-piece feels transformative, no longer Haino leading the the trio and teaching them to follow their hearts nor the three punk and metal and prog trained players of Sumac pressing Haino to explore the sonic limits of their world but instead a sensuous and continuous combo. Place your hand over the credits, press play; does this sound like a collaborative record, a guest appearing on an album, a group playing as a backing band, or does it feel like a band?
There are times when, knowing the bluster of Turner’s acrylic baritone guitar anywhere, I can spy him taking the lead while Haino is the one playing support counter melodies. This lets Brian Cook, still the most underrated and pivotal member of this trio, and Nick Yacyshyn, whose drumming has evolved over the life of this band to thunderous and furious post-Ben Koller shredding to immensely sensitive and thoughtful while still retaining primal power, develop a surging tidal motion in the rhythm section. This dynamic between Haino and Turner will then suddenly switch, allowing Haino to take the lead with scrapes and soundscapes and stabbing lines while Turner falls back to cover, happening both with spontaneity but also the trained ear of keen improvisers. The band hasn’t record or toured since COVID began, only just now hitting the road, and these recordings comprise the last work (at least released thus far) that they assembled before the virus came and fucked everything up. It is also, in turn, their mightiest musical document.
That this record was recorded live in front of an audience only adds another layer of wonder to it. Credit to the engineer for producing clean enough tapes for the mixing engineer and mastering engineers to work from, delivering a document that, save for a single faint moment of fading applause at the end of a track, you’d never guess was played without planning live on stage, no overdubs. Normally, we here at Treble are averse to overly privileging the rockist or jazz snob ideology that good music comes from players talented in specific ways; albums such as SMiLE for instance could literally never be played in a room with a mic given the arrangements, but this doesn’t make the album inherently better or worse than contemporary work by Ariana Grande and Carly Rae Jepsen or whatever new grimy, slick, compact rap record The Alchemist is whipping up. Each of these isn’t in competition with each other, simply different ways up the mountain, each requiring their own skills and methods for developing to fullness the sound they seek to make.
That said, hearing works with this level of internal self-complication, the thrilling dialectical fervor of jazz meted against the bleeding psychedelic of prog at its most violent and explosive, married to the hybrid armies of metal and hardcore and noise, knowing it was all done in the moment live on stage makes it feel just that little bit more magical. And while these performances were recorded for a reason, mixed for a reason, released for a reason, one can’t help but want to pat the four players featured here on the back for proving to themselves that this is possible. We don’t expect players to become greats at the genre they work in, nor should we; art, not being a competition, is about expression and not abstract greatness. We certainly don’t expect players to become greats of many fields, let alone many fields in simultaneity. Yet this is what we witness here, a record that lives up to any given avant-rock or avant-metal great, even by these esteemed players’ own robust back catalogs, while also being a record of their furthest mastery of the bleeding edge of jazz and this type of hardcore, prog and metal to date.
But where their last collaboration felt like a test, sparks in darkness, deliberately meant to change the trajectory of both this trio and Haino forever, this set makes a new demand: More. Work of this caliber can’t be left alone. Per the words of Haino in the middle of this record: Be bright, be bright, be bright, making something beautiful. Let brightness override obligation. Sometimes, it’s a sign of greatness that by the close of a record, one feels satisfied, the itch scratched, a work being a complete exploration and compendium and archive of a thought. In this case, however, I am left ravenous.
Label: Thrill Jockey
Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.