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Sumac - Love in Shadow Music Album Reviews

After sessions last year with Japanese improv legend Keiji Haino, the powerful metal trio ripped its newest songs open, filling the negative space with improvisational gusto to become a stunning band.

Though he does not play a single note, the Japanese improvisational nonpareil Keiji Haino is partly to thank for one of this year’s most audacious metal statements. In the summer of 2017, Sumac—then a rather untested trio of West Coast metal veterans including guitarist and singer Aaron Turner of Isis, bassist Brian Cook of Russian Circles, and drummer Nick Yacyshyn of Baptists—traveled to Tokyo to record and perform with Haino after he unexpectedly accepted an unsolicited invitation to jam. For 40 years, Haino has crisscrossed the borders of rock, noise, blues, and even a cappella balladry, disregarding structural and linguistic conventions with a singularly surrealistic vision. On American Dollar Bill, he did much the same with Sumac, helping the trio splatter its volatile and involved doom against the studio wall, throw it down the stairs, and splinter it into shapes of joyous abstraction.

For Sumac, it must have been like seeing yourself in a cracked mirror and realizing there’s something fundamental about yourself you should change. Though the band had already written its third record, their time with Haino prompted them to reconsider the possibilities of open space and internal deconstruction, to ponder anew the room where a solo or breakdown might once have gone. Love in Shadow is both daring and daunting, with Sumac disrupting their customary marches with frayed instrumental improvisations that feel as if they may fall apart and building 15-minute opuses with assorted blocks of dead-ahead pummel and dissonant impressionism. They have hinted at this path in the past, particularly on 2016’s What One Becomes, their stormy and suggestive second album. But Haino and American Dollar Bill catalyzed Sumac’s progression toward Love in Shadow, a four-track, hour-long, monumental album that feels like the arrival of a band newly unbound.

Love in Shadow may at first feel unapproachable, like some steamroller you can only watch plow past. Or perhaps it sounds unseemly, like some gangly beast whose long limbs and bulky body don’t cohere. The first response is a symptom of a truly powerful trio, a band capable of shifting from athletic thrash to viscous doom with unwavering force; when “The Task” begins in italicized fury, for instance, you simply want to get out of its way. The second impression stems from the improvisational impasses where they trade rugged melodies for warped variations: When Turner shapes a spider web of piercing notes, à la Derek Bailey, toward the end of “The Task,” one wonders how it all fits together. All four pieces pivot between brute strength and ponderous retreats. After the seven-minute tirade that opens “Arcing Silver,” Sumac go nearly silent before conjuring emotional images without a word, much like Loren Connors. They sprint toward the end, as driving and relentless as they have ever been. The listener is left dumbstruck by whiplash.

Where the music can often seem like a slingshot, Turner pulls a narrative cord tightly through Love in Shadow, offering a stabilizing factor amid all the commotion. Rendered in language that laces eroticism with existential anxiety (and vice versa) and harkens to poet Octavio Paz, these songs address our dogged pursuit of, need for, and battle with love—or, as Turner phrases it, to find “our better blood” alive and flowing in someone else. Turner returns time and again to the vulnerability inherent in love, as if making a commitment turns us into supine beasts exposing our soft bellies to the whims of another. As he wrestles with these feelings, barking and bellowing one clipped phrase at a time, the band wrestles alongside him. As he faces some wall of worry, the band collapses into one of its paroxysms, looking for the answer. The longer you listen, the more cohesive and magnetic Love in Shadow becomes, revealing itself as a reluctantly romantic opera all clad in black. Here’s a record about love as you’ve never heard it.

The toil and triumph Sumac document and illustrate so gamely during Love in Shadow represent an accidental analogue for Turner’s own trajectory. Twenty years have passed since Turner cofounded Isis, a band whose fluid shifts between musical frames helped reshape a generation’s expectations of what metal could be. He did (and, to a lesser extent, still does) the same with his label, Hydra Head, and a string of bands that have all pressed against the boundaries of heaviness in peculiar ways—the spasmodic Old Man Gloom, the immersive Mamiffer, the radiant Jodis. Turner is as inquisitive and essential as any other figure in heavy metal in the United States this century, but his creative unrest and quest to issue his music on his own terms have long kept him at the edge of wider success. Here he is anyway, radically reinventing the possibilities of a band that has leapfrogged from good to staggering in a single record. Love in Shadow is a testament to perseverance in the face of uncertainty from a bandleader who has lived, worked, and loved by that ideal.

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