Determining the best year or decade for metal is an argument with no easy answer, though there’s never been more variety or simply the sheer number of bands as there is now. But the most consequential decade for metal isn’t really up for debate: It’s the 1980s. It’s the era that saw Metallica release their greatest material, the rise of Iron Maiden, and Judas Priest at the peak of their powers. It yielded the earliest records in death metal, black metal, grindcore, industrial metal and thrash. The embarrassment of riches that have followed have mostly built on these templates, though the O.G. offerings have aged incredibly well, and a quick listen to Number of the Beast should cure any inclinations to the contrary. As will Sumerlands‘ Dreamkiller, an album recorded in the 2020s but with a reverence for the classics that’s inspired, even exciting despite its vintage reference points.
On their 2016 debut album, Philadelphia’s Sumerlands presented themselves as one of the strongest entrants in an increasingly nostalgic batch of riff merchants, which likewise includes Haunt, Spirit Adrift, Enforcer and the now defunct In Solitude. Its follow-up arrived in no hurry, which comes as no major surprise given the work that guitarist Arthur Rizk does as a producer for other bands, including Power Trip, Devil Master, Eternal Champion and Unto Others. Yet the six-year gap leading to Dreamkiller has yielded spectacular rewards, their second full-length soaring ever higher in pursuit of heavy metal heroism.
Never ones to be bogged down in mean-mugging ghoulish kayfabe, Sumerlands seemingly embrace every uncle-in-a-Trans-Am cliche of ’80s metal and make them all sound unusually fresh. That might have something to do with so much of contemporary metal’s reliance on being extreme for its own sake, but Sumerlands’ primary aim is writing great songs that also rip, and not necessarily vice versa. Even more so than riffs, hooks are their primary currency, best showcased in an anthem like “Edge of a Knife,” which, intentionally or not, seems to nod to Scorpions in their early ’80s prime. When the riffs do fly, as on highlight “Twilight Points the Way,” the band can shred with the best of them, while synthesizers play an ever more prominent role, glowing beneath the speed metal chug of the title track. The group even deigns to be sexy, turning in a standout piece of late-night makeout metal with “Night Ride,” a song custom-fit for sports car budgets and video vixens.
There’s a lot more to Dreamkiller than nostalgia, though there’s little doubt about its appeal to listeners who stocked up on Megaforce and Metal Blade cassettes 35 to 40 years ago. Sumerlands continue to find new avenues worth exploring in a sound that’s not yet ready for retirement. The band show great affection for a classic approach without ever getting caught up in pastiche, which is challenge enough as it is, but they build on it further by crafting great songs rich in detail and strong instrumental prowess. It’s a great reminder of just how much heavy metal in the ’80s gave us.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.