Aaron Turner is probably the farthest thing from ‘unknown, indie musician’ the ‘post-metal’ scene has to offer. ISIS the band was one of the most prominent and powerful names in music throughout the first decade of the new millennium, and its legacy shall not be denied; it is unsurprising that Turner’s name is held by many in such high regard. Upon news of a fresh musical project titled SUMAC, which would mark a return to skull-crushing heaviness in his musical output, there was ‘a great disturbance in the force’, and the air grew heavy with anticipation. And now that the beast is loose, and known by its name, The Deal, there are many things to be said.
Firstly, what is SUMAC? Quite simply, it is a super-group of sorts, formed by Aaron Turner (Old Man Gloom, Mamiffer, ex-Isis) on guitars and vocals, Nick Yacyshyn (Baptists) on drums, and session/occasionally live bassist Brian Cook (Russian Circles, ex-These Arms Are Snakes, ex-Botch). The name of the band is also a vague botanical reference, which could either mean a lemony condiment or the poisonous part of a family of plants, which includes the poison ivy. After having thoroughly listened to the records, I tend to lean towards the second meaning, and I will endeavor to explain why.
RELEASE DATE: 17 February 2015 LABEL: Profound Lore Records
Their debut LP, titled The Deal, is an affair of such ferocity and relentless mass that it genuinely demands a lot of strength from the listener. It is deliberate, ponderous, patient in its aggression, lumbering in a Triassic, primeval sort of way, and I am convinced that Aaron Turner’s wish to create some of the most dense and brutal music ever has been fulfilled. But there is a catch, and it is perhaps unexpected – the record shines mostly due to Nick Yacyshyn’s drumming. Not since Fredrik Thordental’s Sol Niger Within have I heard musical structures which leave so much breathing room and dynamic range to the drummer, while the guitar and vocals stick to the bottom end, the thick, stable foundations of the Ziggurat. Every repetition of Turner’s rabid riffs is made new and dizzying by Yacyshyn’s seemingly endless rhythmic imagination, every phrase is nuanced and divided by his breathless, furious drumming, an inexhaustible source of novelty and staggering catalyst for intimate brutality.
To force asymmetry into stable musical structures is perhaps Turner’s greatest gift, and Yacyshyn is an amazing partner. It is obvious the two of them have excellent chemistry, and Cook understands just when to step in, with great self-control, to simply place the occasional accent and offer support. His bass playing is the scaffolding the other two seem intent on pushing to the limit and the tremendous tension born of this alliance is truly awesome (in the old sense of the word).
Melody is skewed almost entirely on this record, save perhaps for the first track (‘Spectral Gold’), which uses a relatively soft dark-ambient swell to set the mood, and the final track (‘Radiance of being’), which leads one out of the maelstrom with tentative kindness, alluding to Neil Young’s improvisations for the Dead Man film soundtrack. The middle four tracks are pure, unadulterated, neutron-star-heavy darkness and rhythmic cataclysm. Overall, The Deal does not flow, it is a jagged record, a musical ascent through barren, molten mountains, demanding resilience and focus with every step, unforgiving and savage. It is beautiful, but not for everyone, not without training, and not without nerves of steel. To take the metaphor a little further, the summit is the title track, offering and requiring the most from the listener.
However, on a production level, I find the record a little lacking, in the sense that it sounds a little dull, muddled. This is perhaps to be expected, given that the recording engineer was Mell Dettmer of Sunn O))) and Earth, both reference points in drone-metal, but I personally feel that the recording could have used a bit more crispness, more definition, without sacrificing any of the ferocity. Of course, the music stands on its own, and I grant that the nebulous recording adds to the mood to a certain extent, but it just feels a little too much, going slightly against the grain of the composition and instrumental virtuosity of the music.
The Deal is a punishing beast of a record, and I cannot recommend it enough to people who like to be challenged by their music, who like to fight it tooth and nail for that elusive, final glow of satisfaction. However, I offer a fair warning: this is not music to be played in the background – it will grab your attention by the throat and squeeze hard, do not attempt to browse nonchalantly through the tracks. They are architectural just as much as they are musical, and it takes patience to understand and enjoy such odd buildings as these.