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Review: Sumac’s Free Metal Breaks Ugly New Ground

The extreme metal trio has a big-tent vision that brings to mind anything from Hüsker Dü to John Zorn

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Faith Coloccia

Sumac, Love in Shadow | ★★★ 1/2

Keiji Haino and Sumac, American Dollar Bill – Keep Facing Sideways, You’re Too Hideous To Look at Face On | ★★★★

Sumac is an extreme metal power trio with seemingly no boundaries, jazz-like interplay and a hankering for noises both brittle and extreme, sparse and overwhelming. Leader Aaron Turner – former of Isis – stresses in interviews that “heavy” can mean a lot more than just riff bludgeon, and Sumac’s big-tent vision is patient and satisfying, reminiscent of what labelmates Tortoise did for rock music: just replace vinyl-collector obsessions with krautrock, dub and minimalism with burlier slabs of Swans, free and fusion jazz and the American and Japanese noise undergrounds. It’s less a collage owing to the frenetic cut-and-paste of Mr. Bungle or Naked City and more like a sludge band embarking on the longform journeys of electric Miles Davis.

On their third (and longest) album, Sumac stretch out on four massive uglyscapes that all cross the 12-minute mark. The multiple chapters of 21-minute opener “The Task” plays out like Tortoise’s avant-sampler platter “Djed,” a suite that links multiple ideas into a cinematic whole. Within there’s blackened Mastodon pummel, mathy turnarounds, Stooges-esque free noise, doom stomp and itchy mosquito drone. Towards the end, the rhythm section slowly urps out a 11/4 ostanato while Turner provides a bluesy, noise-flecked guitar solo that’s more like Bill Frisell or Mark Ribot than, say, Kirk Hammett. “Arcing Silver” starts with an AmRep-style sludge riff while Turner wheedles and explores and crackles or stays silent. After its share of churn and tumult and void, there’s a pause and a coda that sounds like a 59-second grindcore Hüsker Dü. Closer “Ecstasy of Unbecoming” recalls everything from the “scum tapes” of Wolf Eyes to the primitive guitar avant-blues of Bill Orcutt to Turner’s old band, Isis. The recent output of Sige Records, a label run by Turner and musical/marriage partner Faith Coloccia, feels like a decent hint for watching for Sumac’s current obsessions. In the last few years they’ve released music from free-rock duo Black Spirituals, Japanese “catastrophic noise-metal” group Endon and harsh noise veteran Daniel Menche

For anyone who’s idea of “rock” isn’t dependent on things like melodies, lyrics, rhythms and, well, “songs” – then Sumac’s collaboration with Japanese avant-garde icon Keiji Haino is maybe 2018’s best rock record. Its 66-minute run time is a mix of fragility and chaos, a delivery system for raw, visceral shocks of aggression. It’s “free metal” recorded from what the press release describes as “unrehearsed, completely non-premeditated sessions.” The flighty, feedback-y churn and the push-pull rhythms should be familiar to anyone who’s caught Haino through the decades, solo or in consort with extreme artists like saxophone multilator Peter Brötzmann, sludge band Boris, free music bedrock Derek Bailey, noise thought leader Merzbow, jazz provocateur John Zorn, German orchestra Zeitkratzer or others. However it’s Sumac’s heft and chops that make this feel like new territory, especially the explosive, hard-hitting drums of Nick Yacyshyn that play jazz skitter with Zeppelin muscle. This isn’t the jangle-skree of Sonic Youth or the psychedelic blurts of the Butthole Surfers, this is exacting, weapons-grade, military-trained, merciless.

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