Album Review: SUMAC What One Becomes
It's safe to say the 2010 breakup of post-metal heavyweights Isis represented a welcome development by absolutely no one, with the demise of home label Hydra Head two years later just salt in the wound, but frontman Aaron Turner has been nothing if not prolific in the ensuing years, churning out scads of releases via such projects as Mammifer and House of Low Culture, not to mention the exponentially more visible Old Man Gloom. But it's Sumac that has fans of the monolithic early Isis sound abuzz, an all-star collaboration between Turner and Russian Circles bassist Brian Cook as well as Nick Yacyshyn of Baptists on drums. After a fairly high profile debut on Profound Lore last year, Sumac is already back in action with their sophomore effort, What One Becomes.
Sumac from the start never really resembled an Isis in all but name only, but among the many differences between the two bands there lay a key similarity that tied the two together: a penchant for overbearingly heavy, sledgehammer riffs, something even later Isis albums seemed in short supply on. Title track "The Deal" alone seemed the most momentous, clock-stopping work that Turner had laid to tape in years.
As catchy as the opening riff is, the majority of that track shows Turner engaged in a more far-reaching sense of exploration than he typically allowed himself in Isis, a band whose overall career trajectory did indeed follow a variety of muses, but for which any individual album tended to adhere to its own internal consistency. As such, Sumac represents a more challenging demand amid the synthesis of its influences: the mechanistic, industrial stomp of early Isis, the more subdued melancholia of Russian ircles and the busybody hardcore of Baptists.
The latter's emphasis is most pronounced in the closing 90 seconds of opening track "What One Becomes", where Yacyshyn lays into an endlessly ascending maelstrom of freeform beats atop a static single-note riff. The 10-minute single "Rigid Man" is the closest this album has to a "The Deal" analogue, which is to say it's by far the most teeth-clenching of the bunch even if it lacks the sheer immediacy of its predecessor, but within that 10 minutes the band progress from slow burn pugilism through an almost Sunn-like ambient interlude to finally circle back for a pure sludge finale.
It's those droning interludes that will prove most divisive to many fans, with the ones center-piecing the aforementioned tracks effective tonal bridges complementing related yet different pieces of bookending music, while those in "Clutch of Oblivion" and "Will to Reach" seem to exist mostly to stretch a five minute track out to double that length. Interestingly, the album's longest track at 17.5 minutes, "Blackout" achieves its bloated indulgences with monotonous riffing much more so than filler ambience. It does boast its share of intrigue and exciting moments, but God only knows one must slog through a bit of mire to get to them.
The high points on What One Becomes are astounding enough to launch this album into many people's "best of the year" arguments, but I for one believe that Sumac are capable of just that much more with a little renewed focus (the low points of the album simply seem rushed rather than compromised). Nonetheless, an inconsistent near-masterpiece is easily a more essential album for the collection than a more even keeled mediocrity, so tempered expectations or no this one is a must.