During his tenure fronting the iconic post-metal band Isis, Aaron Turner spent over a decade emphasizing the most beautiful parts of something truly beastly. Metal, at least for its first few decades, was rarely recognized for its elegance or nuance, a stereotype which Isis helped to debunk if only by proving that metal could be pretty or spacious or haunting, rather than all pummel all the time. Not that Isis didn’t pummel, but when it happened, it was as a means of creating something powerful or affecting rather than extreme. Sumac, the band Turner founded a half-decade after Isis’ break-up, has a similar M.O. but one that presents a bigger challenge. Where Isis presented the elegance of heavy music, Sumac created something similarly breathtaking out of a more chaotic, noisy and aggressive set of elements. It’s not a retreat from finding beauty in heavy or overwhelming music, but rather a knottier path to finding it.
Love In Shadow, Sumac’s third proper full-length, is the band’s second release this year following American Dollar Bill, a collaboration with Japanese noise-rock composer Keiji Haino. Where that album’s more avant garde noise-rock abstractions likely didn’t quite scratch the itch listeners had two years after the release of 2016′s great What One Becomes, it offered a clearer view of where Sumac was headed. Improvisation has become a more integral element for Turner, bassist Brian Cook and drummer Nick Yacyshyn, as well as a defining characteristic of Love In Shadow. The journey is far less direct, and it’s rife with unexpected detours, but Sumac’s music has never sounded quite so breathtaking.
The looseness of the four lengthy compositions on Love In Shadow set them apart from more conventional metal songs. And “songs” doesn’t even really feel like the right way to discuss these, either. The colossal, 21-minute opening piece “The Task” is an epic undertaking with various disparate parts seamlessly pieced together, almost like one of Talk Talk’s similarly improvisation-heavy late-era masterpieces, but much heavier and more viscerally intense. Yet what’s remarkable is how immediately it begins; Turner, Cook and Yacyshyn are locked into a furious groove, punishing and pummeling, but accessible in its all-pistons-firing display of force. It’s what comes next that takes it from being a great opening metal track into a more complex and fascinating composition: changing time signatures, more abrasive chord structures, the unexpected emergence of more melodic hooks, silence and slow-motion instrumental terror. It’s a lot to absorb, but it’s more accurately something to be experienced: overwhelming, mesmerizing and ecstatic.
Nothing on Love In Shadow resembles a single in the slightest, nor have any of Sumac’s past compositions. Yet each of the four tracks is a standout in its own way, a piece of heavy art that feels self-contained yet contributes to an even more awe-inspiring whole. The most immediate of these is “Attis’ Blade,” the track that served as the de facto single by default of being the only pre-release track from the album. It’s also one that the band’s been playing live for a while, having made the setlist of many of the shows during their winter tour with Converge. It’s a tour de force, opening with a galloping rumble that signals this is going to be something intense and remarkable. It balances groove and shriek, noise-rock freakout and haunting, bluesy riffs. And by the end, those riffs echo against a spacious backdrop that serves as a reminder that this music, however torturous the path or however thunderous the roar, does indeed harbor a grace within it. It’s not a kind of beauty that comes easy, but it’s most certainly there to be found for those with the patience to let it reveal itself.
When I spoke to Turner in 2016 about the nature of Sumac’s music, he framed it in terms of being a kind of therapeutic or positive form of coping with dark feelings or negativity: “it acts more as a release for the things that otherwise might remain hidden… and maybe as a counterbalance to anger and sadness and those sorts of things.” This hasn’t changed with Love In Shadow, though both agony and ecstasy are heightened here, the meditative moments more spacious, the chaotic moments more manic, and the melodic moments more immediate. Just as John Coltrane or Pharoah Sanders channeled powerful, spiritual expressions on their greatest albums, Sumac is tapping into feelings that transcend riffs. Love In Shadow is about exploration, both in terms of music and the self. It might require some extra time or attention, but the potential to take away something new and soul-nourishing with each listen makes it a worthy investment.