Sumac – The Healer

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Sumac The Healer review

We’ve reached our limit on what we’re willing to call a “journey,” perhaps, but there’s still no better word to capture the epic spiritual quest that Sumac have been on for the better part of their existence. Embracing discomfort and uncertainty over the lure of an easy groove on early releases such as 2016’s What One Becomes, Sumac have, since the beginning, made music for the long haul rather than an immediate hook. In that sense, they’re not unlike Turner’s prior band, post-metal legends Isis, whose music unfolded gradually and through often gorgeously arranged instrumental sequences. But Sumac—comprising guitarist/vocalist Aaron Turner, bassist Brian Cook and drummer Nick Yacyshyn—arrive at grace and transcendence through a more treacherous and unpredictable path, feeling every throb of pain and pang of grief on that upward climb.

Sumac’s journey began 10 years ago, but they reached a pivotal point in 2018 with American Dollar Bill, a full-length collaboration with Japanese avant garde legend Keiji Haino that saw them employing improvisation to a more pronounced degree, exploring a newly revelatory permutation of their oblique noise-metal through Sonny Sharrock-like jazz cacophony on the subsequent, outstanding Love in Shadow and May You Be Held. Their thorny tangle of feedback and noise has grown more open-ended and strangely beautiful in its own cryptic way, achieving a new climax of gnarled, gnashing triumph on their new album, The Healer.

From the initiation of a tense rumble of simmering low-end on the opening monolith “World of Light,” Sumac make clear that this stretch of their expedition is no more forgiving or approachable to those who might just be tuning in. Sumac’s music has never been particularly easy to simply drop into, its labyrinthine pathways and frequent tendency to forgo or defer that most crucial unit of heavy metal music—the riff—providing an altogether different challenge than that of most of their peers. “World of Light” doubles down on such a challenge, its opening thrum of sweat-lodge drones a sort of meditative conditioning for the acts of contortion that follow, the group’s acrobatic clatter eventually tumbling into a clearing of glorious melody and ultimately a climactic pummel that feels like a strangely joyous release valve after such a hazardous ascent. The longest of four side-long pieces that each see Sumac’s horizons continuing to unfold, “World of Light” feels like an alpha and omega, the entirety of what they are and where they’ve been captured in one self-contained, 25-minute saga.

Though they’re a particularly adept group of musicians at building intricate, ambitious pieces that take their time to fully reveal the whole of their sonic and emotional spectrum, Sumac capture a satisfying drive and immediacy through the album’s two shorter tracks, “Yellow Dawn” and “New Rites.” At nearly 13 minutes apiece, “shorter” still means gargantuan. Nonetheless, there’s a relentless force to these two songs that leaves just enough space for inward contemplation while gathering up steam for that next forward thrust. The latter is the sludgiest moment on the record, all low-end churn and climactic roar. Yet “Yellow Dawn” is nothing short of a revelation, a blistering psychedelic transformation from organ-laden noise-rock hymn to a thrilling, furious gallop, Turner bellowing growls of rebirth and transfiguration: “Awake! Rejoice! Body reclaimed /Spirit carried/ by starlit waves/ In heaven’s hands.”

Sumac’s music has often been likened to that of religious ecstasy; you’ll find the world “spiritual” in this very review, in fact. But it’s less doctrinaire or dogmatic than the more torturous act of digging deep within oneself to better understand what it means to have a soul; underlining this point are Turner’s feral howls in “The Stone’s Turn,” which are more primal scream than spoken tongues. And in a sense, that aspect of the band’s music that hasn’t changed in all this time. Turner spoke to me back in 2016 about “the idea that we do have a choice about how we grow as people and how we are able to deal with challenging circumstances or how we allow ourselves to look into darker corners of ourselves,” and how it’s not always something we as humans are willing to do. Despite how far afield of metal’s most recognizable qualities Sumac have traveled, on The Healer they come closest to that emotionally pure, sacred quality they’ve been reaching toward, feeling gravity’s pull as they graze the heavens.

Label: Thrill Jockey

Year: 2024

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Sumac The Healer review

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