SUMAC- The Healer (Album Review)

June 21, 2024


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Nine years ago SUMAC emerged as a force to be reckoned with in the sludge metal space with The Deal, bringing together Aaron Turner (Isis, Old Man Gloom), Brian Cook (Russian Circles, Botch), and Nick Yacyshyn (Baptists) and pivoting towards material that was as heavy and destructive as possible.  Early on it felt like Turner took some elements of earlier Isis and explored if they had gone in a heavier, dissonant direction versus the atmospheric path.  Since then, SUMAC has transformed into something radically different, retaining their crushing riffing and dense sound but letting their songwriting sprawl outwards into wild and unpredictable rides.  The group’s multiple collaborations with Japanese musician Keiji Haino signaled this shift, and since then albums like Love in Shadow and May You Be Held have spent just as much time exploring improvisation and sparser drone-like textures.  This year’s The Healer pushes things even further out, as not only is this their longest album to date (not counting the Keiji Haino works) but it pushes both the minimalist and maximalist sides of their sound to their logical peaks.  It’s an album that demands patience and isn’t going to be for everyone, but those that are willing to strap themselves in for the ride will find this to be a truly exciting listen.

The mammoth opener “World of Light” is going to be what immediately differentiates those that find themselves drawn to SUMAC’s latest work and those who go running in the opposite direction.  As just under twenty-six minutes, it’s longer than some sludge and post metal albums on its own, and this feels appropriate considering how many twists and turns there are.  Initially the group keeps a much looser feel, as notes are stretched out and distorted in ways reminiscent of Sunn O))) while the drums move from muted hits to more frantic playing.  During the times the sound goes in and out, Aaron Turner tends to appear without warning and hits some extremely distorted and wild screams. His voice seems to collide with the layers of distortion, as if to pull them apart, and the resulting sound is like drone taken to a much weirder place.  Twelve minutes in or so you finally get a section that’s a bit closer to what you’d expect from a sludge-adjacent band, as the riffs are dense and every drum hit thumps you right in the chest.  But just as quickly as the layers built, they are ripped away yet again for sparse melodies and haunting moments that sound as though they could be field recordings.  It’s sure to test some people’s patience, especially considering there’s still close to fifty minutes of music still to come.  But even though I found some passages on “World of Light” just a bit overstretched, the way it destroys and rebuilds over its run remains intriguing, and new layers keep emerging with each time through.

“Yellow Dawn” and “New Rites” are slightly more approachable by SUMAC standards at just under thirteen minutes each, and while they are more direct in their writing there are still just as many twists and turns to discover.  The former starts off much softer with whirring guitars, booming drums, and organ playing courtesy of Faith Coloccia, bringing an almost post-rock vibe that reminds me of Wrekmeister Harmonies circa The Alone Rush.  After a few minutes the sound picks up in favor of heavy hitting sludge that utilizes dense and dissonant riffing along with some of the best drum sound I’ve heard in the genre in some time.  The way each bass drum kick hits on this recording makes every minute feel gigantic and monstrous, and it works perfectly in conjunction with the lurching guitar and bass.  “Yellow Dawn” sticks pretty close to the sludge formula until close to the end where the guitars head into some crazy riffing that’s a bit more noise rock.  This holds true for “New Rites” as well, as initially the instrumentation is a bit sparser and loose but explodes into a whirlwind of noise by the end.  Turner’s low growls reverberate over this crazy soundscape but don’t feel like as much of a focus here, contributing additional textures without truly stealing the spotlight.

After so much sprawling instrumentation and unexpected freak-outs you’re likely to already be tired, but “The Stone’s Turn” ends things with another lengthy journey into the unknown.  This track utilizes a lot of the same elements as “World of Light”, but it pulls it off in more interesting ways.  Early on there’s more droning instrumentation and stretched out growls, but rather than a minimalistic approach the sheer level of noise makes for a more tense feel.  This is reinforced by the sheer madness at the two-minute mark where the guitar, bass, and drums seem to dance in a tornado like fashion as Turner screams and growls over top of them.  There are still periods of respite on “The Stone’s Turn” but not nearly as much as some of the other material, as after a few minutes of softer and introspective sludge riffs things tend to roll right back towards free-form improvisation and dense walls of noise.  There are so many interesting riffs, transitions, and drum patterns on this song that it feels like I’m just scratching the surface even after listening to it for the better part of a week, and I suspect it’ll keep drawing me back.

Ten years in, SUMAC has somehow gotten even denser and unpredictable.  Despite exploring elements of drone and improvisation on their more recent material, The Healer pulls things together in ways that still feel unique.  The free-form freak-outs and fluidity of the transitions continued to draw me back as ideas were destroyed and rebuilt in real time, and while the opener does come across as a bit too sparse there’s so much here that has kept me diving back in despite the length of time needed to do so.  It won’t be for everyone, but those that enjoy everything from free jazz to drone and post rock alongside their pummeling sludge metal will find this to be a winner.  The Healer is available from Thrill Jockey Records.

-Review by Chris Dahlberg