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Sumac - "What One Becomes" | Album Review

by Jon Hadusek (@jhadusek)

Here are the brutal guitar jams of our uncertain future. Humanity drifts in a state of a paranoia and imbalance. Greed and narcissism clash with hope and progress on a political and cultural level. Sumac is a reflection of our darkened state, much like vocalist/guitarist Aaron Turner’s original project, Isis. Sludgy, calculated metal that entombs and suffocates, What One Becomes maintains this mold to an uncompromising degree. Forget whatever you think you know about song structure. Cling to the repetition. After that there’s only dissonance.

The record opens with the terrifying “Image of Control”. Turner’s vocals echo from some distant place behind a wall of cymbal crashes and broken guitar hammering. The intro is intent on driving away the wary, verging on harsh noise, finally broken by silence and a solitary riff. When the full band lock in for first time, the moment explodes, reconciling the last two minutes of torturous anticipation — of which Sumac master on What One Becomes. They tap into a sacred balance of anticipation and repetition rarely found this side of Unwound. “Rigid Man” and the prog-metal opus “Blackout” move almost cinematically: They’re arranged as linear compositions, with passage after passage of brutal repetition and mathematic riffing unfurling one after the other. Occasionally, the band will revisit a prior phrase in a symphonic-esque refrain, but for the most part, these five songs move in unpredictable directions while still feeling like a unified arrangement and not different parts smashed together. This is best exemplified on closer “Will to Reach”, the most Isis-like jam here, from its opening staccato riffs to the epic post-metal coda.

Sumac’s ability to maintain that mood of dread and grief gives the album cohesion and conceptual continuity. Turner’s lyrics hold to that thread, evoking yearning and mysticism. On “Clutch of Oblivion”, he screams: “Sons, weep in mothers arms / To the breast are clinging / From that clutch, by fathers torn / And thrust into blazing fields / Cheeks still wet from cherubs tears.” Kurt Ballou’s icy production is an unaffected and sonically intense capture of this poetic sludge.

What One Becomes is centered in a reality that’s all too real, and as a metal release, it feels vital among the waves of regurgitation. Turner has been somewhat restless lately, jumping between Sumac and his experimental side-project Mammifer, but this is a truly inspired set of songs and a step up from Sumac’s debut album, The Deal. There is a comfort in the unrelenting nature of this music. It allows us to project our similarly complex and intense feelings through it. That is a precious thing, especially in times like these.