Album Review: Sumac - 'THE DEAL' (Profound Lore, 2015)

Sumac is a sludge/doom metal band compromised of acclaimed metal musician Aaron Turner on guitars and vocals and Nick Yacyshyn from Baptists on drums.

They are augmented on record by Brian Cook (Russian Circles, ex-Botch, ex-These Arms Are Snakes) on bass. The album was released in 2015 through extreme and experimental metal record label Profound Lore.

A lot of reviews have been tying Sumac's sound to the album Celestial by Aaron Turner's now-defunct project ISIS. This relationship is palpable but a bit misleading.

Celestial was cut when ISIS was a young band, one that showed their influences from such earlier bands extreme metal and industrial groups as Swans, Godflesh, and the Melvins on their sleeves.

The album was also released before their flirtation with progressive rock through groups such as Tool, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, and even Yes would fully blossom, starting on their third full-length album Panopticon and remaining with them until the end of that group.

But emphasizing The Deal's relationship to Celestial is a slippery slope; one finds that soon you're writing up a brief on Aaron Turner's previous work, ignoring both Nick Yacyshyn's input and the meat of what The Deal actually is almost entirely.

A safer reference point would be Aaron Turner's concurrent project Old Man Gloom. They are similar in their mode of combining noise and industrial elements to their sludge and doom metal base.

But where Old Man Gloom uses their punishing walls of incoherent sound and pounding repitious heavy rhythms to offer a sonic embodiment to their anti-humanist and econihilist views, Sumac goes in the opposite direction, one that feels if not celebratory than at least accepting the ugly and brutal nature of the human body and experience.

The instrumental palette underlines this, too; Old Man Gloom is no stranger to tape loops or other more mechanical ways of creating noise and repetition, while Sumac is, at heart, a three-piece, letting a bit of hardcore influence in with the ultimately human and ever-so-slightly (but deliberately) imperfect playing at times.

Likewise, the drumming switches from a metalcore and sludge heft to something a little looser, a little jazzier, a little more wild; this sharply contrasts the drumming of ex-ISIS drummer Aaron Harris, who's signature was even on the earlier, doomier work of ISIS a more controlled and precise style of drumming.

Aaron Turner-led projects tend not to reveal them until much later, if at all. ISIS famously had fan-deciphered lyrics floating around in brief snippets for years as the only write-up of the lyrical end of work, almost all of white were proven wrong when Turner at last released the official lyrics piecemeal through ISIS' site.

This becomes important because Turner has, rightfully, gained a reputation for fairly cerebral lyrics.

The main body of the spirit of the records he is involved in is found in the music itself, which Sumac wields both deftly and punishingly, but the added nuances of Turner's turns-of-phrase are lost in his increasingly indecipherable and terrifying growl.

This is not an attack on the vocal style; while he has a gorgeous clean singing voice he has been known to use from time to time, the usage of the most baldly animalistic vocals on an album seemingly about the inherent tension between the pleasures and brutalities of embodiment, of being spirits that experience the world through matter and the flesh and the brute punishing ugliness of life (as unromantic as ever, save in spirit and the power of the sublime through art) is entirely fitting. And album titles like "Blight's End Angel", "The Deal", and "The Radiance of Being", not to mention the album title The Deal, offer enough of a sense of the overarching narrative and problem set the record is engaged in.

I anticipate the release of the official lyrics will offer more granular examples of the specific degradations and exaltations Turner is concerned about.

And for something a bit more human, a bit more concerned about the unromantic reality of being a human in this world as opposed to one of ideal, having those specific examples might deepen things.

Ultimately, the album isn't quite harrowing enough or beautiful enough to really make its case as strongly as it should. It feels, sonically, like a bedmate to Old Man Gloom's two The Ape of God records that dropped simultaneously late last year, a set of albums likewise just a touch too sprawling to really bring home the point they were trying to make. There is a retained essence, though; The Ape of God records were named in part after an avant-garde novel by Wyndham Lewis from the early 20th century (a move one suspects, whether for better or worse, to be inspired by Aaron Turner given his reputation he built with ISIS of similarly odd reference points) concerning artists' slavish aping (ie. copying) of their inspirational Gods as well as an examination on why they were doomed to fail.

If that intellectual space informed the two OMG albums, offered as a logical extension of the anti-humanity and econihilist aspects of their previous record NO, then Sumac's The Deal feels like a necessary reaction, and one that couldn't be stated within the confines of the ground staked by Old Man Gloom. If we cannot aspire to godliness and achieve, due to our base ape-nature, what remains for us? Ape-hood and apeness.

This is, a part of "the deal" referenced by the title.

It is less a denial of what we aren't as much as an affirmation of what we are and the search for beauty and possibility within that space.

It's not unlike a country or hardcore or gospel record in that way.

This, of course, differentiates it greatly from ISIS and is a large part of why those comparisons fall flat for capturing what it is about Sumac that feels unique and necessary now in the body of work of both main members involved. ISIS was almost always about the tension between the divine, the mythic, the transcendental, and that of the body, the human, the lived, the personal. At its best, ISIS offered both inspiring avenues for pursuing the transcendental and mythic while also offering warnings about its power to disrupt, distort, control and destroy the real. Sumac isn't concerned with any of that. Sumac, from the spare solo guitar amblings of the opening and closing tracks to the more open and loose and wild drumming, is focused entirely on the body, the lived, the real. It offers up the distorted guitar, in that most basic genius idea of rock, as not just a parallel for the human voice but also the human spirit.

That is why it is unaccompanied in beginning and end; that is why the drums act as the unsteady ground the guitar has to navigate; that is why the bass is ancillary and acts more to buffet the riffs than draw attention to itself. And that's why Sumac is a two-piece. Because that's Sumac is.

That's what The Deal is.

And that's a good thing, and extremely workable ground. For all its imperfections, their debut offers a hell of a lot more hits than misses and an extremely fertile ground if they want to come back.

Image taken from Profound Lore's Bandcamp page for the record. ( http://profoundlorerecords.bandcamp.com/album/the-deal )