It was more a question of “when” than “if ," as far as Sumac’s ongoing love affair with Japanese experimentalist Keiji Haino spilling over into the trio’s own output. 2018’s Love In Shadow found guitarist/vocalist Aaron Turner (ex-Isis, Old Man Gloom), drummer Nick Yacyshyn (Baptists) and bassist Brian Cook (Russian Circles, ex-Botch) running the middle ground between 2016’s What One Becomes and their collaborative albums with Haino. Sumac struck gold with that album, incorporating uninhibited impressionism into their forward-thinking sludge metal attack. May You Be Held continues in the direction of Love In Shadow, but it’s more of a continuation than a b-sides record. A good chunk of May You Be Held leaves metal behind in favor of non-linear, textural explorations.
For anyone who got thrown for a loop by the anti-structural elements of Love In Shadow, the first six minutes of May You Be Held center on a bowed vibraphone. Vibraphones tend to polarize between euphonics and atonality, but on “A Prayer for Your Path,” Yacyshyn strikes a balance between the two extremes. As Turner’s distant, guttural hollers enter the mix, Sumac’s chemistry remains unparalleled. In fact, tracks like this depend entirely on the musical intuition between Turner, Cook, and Yacyshyn. The band’s use of dead air is hard to fathom on first listen—not to mention the 20-minute title track.
Sumac has honed the art of uneasy hypnosis, immersing listeners in a state of constant movement and change. Turner and Cook’s motifs materialize gradually, and rarely the same way twice. In the same way, Yacyshyn locks into a groove as quickly as he throws them into a blender of blistering chops. This monster of a song encapsulates Sumac’s bombastic dance of idiosyncrasy and muscular, satisfying heaviness. The song’s five-minute exercise in feedback, cymbal swells, and a one-note tremolo line seem designed to test patience, but it perfectly builds tension for a bludgeoning riff reminiscent of old post-hardcore. Sumac can get away with landing the song with two minutes of aimless chugs, after flowing through so many memorable licks and inventive chord progressions with chaotic precision.
Songs like “The Iron Chair” do to Sumac what Clean Hands Go Foul did to Khanate in 2009. All pretense of, “we’re a sludge/post-metal band,” goes out the window in a full embrace of improvisational noise music. It sounds like it was recorded impromptu in the studio—because it was! Turner and Cook do zero in on some comprehensible motifs, but Yacyshyn’s dynamic, bodacious fills leave no room for foot-tapping. With Turner exploring his falsetto range within his gruesome snarls, the whole experience will utterly madden those looking for anything traditional. “Laughter and Silence” takes this train of thought to its logical conclusion.
Beyond the fact it ends with a 90-second silence, this closing cut makes the weirdest King Crimson songs seem like top 40-hits. The space between notes becomes just as important as the notes themselves, leaving all three members in a state of musical limbo. Between protracted cymbal hits and anti-riffs, Sumac reaches peak levels of avant-garde expression. While this sonic tangent is appreciable in its own right, it’s good that the two longer tracks provide more head-bangable ideas.
Sumac retains a willingness to take its time on “Consumed,” as the long-winded build-up takes on a life of its own before the massive riff hits. Perhaps the anticipation that gives the bulldozing sludge metal passages so much impact—but the extraordinary production of Kurt Ballou and Matt Bayles deserves credit there too. Turner’s seamless transitions from full-on growls to hints at melody become emblematic of Sumac’s dichotomous relation to droning cacophony and prog-sludge riots—as do his thoughtful lyrical narratives. Like Love In Shadow, the humanistic elements of May You Be Held shine through the mire on “Consumed:” “Now up from the pit/ To walk the soaking soil His eyes lift/ To behold the stars Each breath a hymn/ To a world reborn.”
Two years after Sumac found love in the midst of existential turmoil, the band continues to weave tales of transcendence into a discordant world. Indeed, this album’s moments of clarity wouldn’t be the same if they didn’t burst from a tuneless deluge. Those willing to dig into the sprawling anti-musical excavations will uncover many progressive sludge metal gems.