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Album Review: SUMAC The Healer

7.5 Reviewer

Perhaps it was never realistic to assume Sumac would be ordinary, as it joins Aaron Turner with Baptists drummer Nick Yacyshyn and bassist Brian Cook (Russian Circles, ex-Botch). Turner’s background in acts like Isis and Old Man Gloom run the gamut of post-metal, sludge, and weirdo hardcore certainly lends him to a more imaginative view of crushing riffs.

Still, there has been a bit of a line in the sand drawn in Sumac’s career — pre-Keiji Haino and post-Keiji Haino. Their initial collaboration with the Japanese experimentalist seems to have inspired them to push past the prog-ish sludge metal found in 2016’s What One Becomes. Sumac’s approach to Love In Shadow (2018) and May You Be Held (2020) had as much to do with free improvisation and noisy sound sculptures as it did with bludgeoning heaviness. The payoff has remained worth the trial of jumping off the deep end, but their latest album The Healer might be a good starting point for uninitiated listeners.

The main argument for The Healer’s relative palatability isn’t that it’s more orthodox, but that its longer length and shorter track list lends itself to a slower burn than some of its predecessors. Granted, that also means that 7 minutes of the 26-minute “World of Light” is dedicated to droning feedback. Much like similarly abstract doom bands like Khanate, these moments of space and non-motion generate a lulling ambiance and build tension before a cathartic burst of energy.

Whether it’s a flurry of untethered percussion and protracted guitar strains, or a more recognizable doom metal stomp, a cathartic release remains at the center of Sumac’s well-chosen arrival points. Some of this comes from Turner’s vocals, delivering some of his most animalistic performances to date through unsetting howls, bestial growls, and throaty snarls. But much of it comes from the surprising memorability of the riffs once they fully materialize. It’s been a while since “catchy” could describe Sumac, but they’ve somehow provided just enough footholds in the choppy waters. It might take 20 minutes to get there, but it’s quite satisfying once it all comes together. There’s even some Mastodon-ish shredding at the close—a surprise after such a journey, but a welcome one.

The important distinction between Sumac and other experimental metal bands comes from their evident musical chops and attention to aesthetics. While the extended intro of “Yellow Dawn” isn’t exactly dazzling from a technical perspective, each note carries so much intentionality in its improvised context. It feels reminiscent of more recent Swans albums, but then again, Swans would not likely find themselves playing Vancouver International Jazz Festival this coming Friday.

There’s clearly something going on here beyond weird textures and heavy riffs, and that comes down to unpredictability mixed with undeniable chemistry. Turner, Cook, and Yacyshyn play with so much intuition. This would explain why they can traverse delicate meditations, bone-snapping brutality, and frenetic jams with equal fines. Think of the riffs as the equivalent of the “head” of a free jazz piece. After atonal guitar solos, warbly bass lines, and ferocious rhythm changes, Sumac lands itself back in the violent embrace of sludge.

It speaks to the long-winded nature of The Healer that “New Rites” feels like it cuts to the chase. At the same length as “Yellow Dawn,” the song carries the most spontaneous aggression on the album. It’s here where the boundless energy of Yacyshyn’s drumming comes in handy. His visceral attack and bombastic fills pepper the guitars and bass, but also lock up for the low-end abuse created by Cook and Turner. In this way, it’s not impossible to imagine fans of the more adventurous side of sludge metal would find things to enjoy here.

But, whereas many prog bands favor ornate melodies in their sonic exploration, Sumac prefers to tether on the edge of sonic abandon. Whatever rafts of tonality exist in these songs come and go quickly, because when the band isn’t exploring alternate dimensions, their riffs remain as devastating as one would expect.

The way riffs service Sumac’s approach could be likened to the latter performances from Miles Davis. Jazz legend would walk paths totally outside traditional musicianship, as Sumac turns the sludge form on its head with sports of nonlinear voicings and rhythmic explosions. But Davis would sometimes find himself pining for kernels of his roots within his bizarre avant-garde expression, creating a cathartic full-circle moment akin to the hypnotic riffs Sumac locks into after a long voyage into the unknown. “The Stone's Turn” doesn’t shy away from attempts at metallic impressionism, like extended passages of minimalist cymbal whisps and atonal string clatterings. However, it’s almost poetic that a trippy collage of blues-ish soloing and anti-beats leads to a swaying three-count groove.

For all its oddity, The Healer finds unique ways of bridging the gap between pre-Haino Sumac and post-Haino Sumac. It’s still plenty unhinged, maybe even more so in the vocal department, but riff-worshippers who were feeling left out might have a better time with this. It’s refreshing to hear a band operate within a musical sphere that’s decidedly off the deep end with this much clarity of purpose.

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