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Sumac – What One Becomes

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This is only my second review for the Hassle and I have to say, I’m a little worried about being pigeonholed as the guy who only writes reviews of albums with black-and-grey splotches on the cover. I swear it’s a coincidence and going forward, I promise I’ll be writing about albums with all sorts of colors and shapes on the front.

With that disclaimer out of the way, I want to talk about Sumac’s new album What One Becomes (Thrill Jockey Records) and how bone-crushingly, brutally awesome it is.

Sumac is a metal supergroup composed of Aaron Turner (Isis, Old Man Gloom), Brian Cook (Russian Circles, These Arms Are Snakes) and Nick Yacyshyn (Baptists). The former two members come from a post-metal background (you could make the case that Turner essentially invented the genre), while drummer Yacyshyn honed his chops in hardcore. It’s the union of these two genres that makes the album so fresh, exciting and impactful.

What is post-metal? The glib answer is “Explosions in the Sky in drop-C tuning.” The real answer is the glib answer with a little more nuance: it’s a genre that features long, atmospheric passages where a slow and pretty melody is repeated again and again (usually with variations), followed by a supremely heavy section with deep, growling vocals, and then back to the slow, quiet part. Post-metal bands tend to employ tricky time signatures (though always tastefully), very long tracks with very pretentious titles, and concept albums about Serious Topics like string theory or the geopolitics of state surveillance. Often good and interesting, rarely fun.

Despite putting out lots of good material, I think post-metal bands have limited themselves by their own commitment to seriousness. Even with Isis, the best of the bunch, you got the sense that if they just loosened up a bit, let go of their overly analytic, clinical approach, they could have put out something truly timeless, something that transcended their genre.

Enter Sumac. The hallmarks that made Isis great are still there: the masterful use of loud-soft dynamics, the vocals and riffs that sound heavier than the Earth itself. But there’s another key element on What One Becomes and it’s what ties the whole thing together: a sense of fun. The guitar tones are grimy and dirty, the band explodes in noisy freakouts and Yacyshyn thrills with hard-hitting drum work (we even get blast beats on “Will to Reach”).

In “Blackout,” the band jumps from slow post-metal passages to funhouse-mirror math-rock jams to propulsive, thrashy 4/4 riffs. Somehow, miraculously, it all works together. They’ve managed to hit upon the perfect balance between the headiness of post-metal and the cathartic exuberance of hardcore. It’s both intensely serious and an absolute joy to listen to.

Isis broke up in 2010 (I’m sure their former PR team is grateful, given… you know) and it seems like that break-up enabled Turner to take his music in a new direction. He’s kept on experimenting with new sounds, pushing himself in ways he might have been uncomfortable with ten years ago, and– in a true display of metal maturity– his raspy death-growl even has a bit more nuance and depth to it. I found it telling that the second track on What One Becomes is called “Rigid Man.” Is it a nod to who he used to be? And I wonder– given the album title– who might he become next?

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