Review: Sumac’s What One Becomes is Heavy and Expansive Beyond Belief

  • Kip Wingerschmidt

From the moment Sumac hit the scene with last years’ meaty Profound Lore debut The Deal (listen HERE), nobody could earnestly deny the band’s impressive level of heaviness or might. We are obviously all entitled to our disparaging opinions (even if they’re wrong), but you’d be hard-pressed to find any tr00 haters of this fierce outfit that is carving new terrain far outside of the realm of any of its seasoned members’ various other projects.

A high-caliber supergroup of sorts, Sumac began as a vehicle for the long-prolific and perpetually impressive Aaron Turner (ISIS, Old Man Gloom, several other projects, music business and artwork endeavors) to flex a different side of his expansive songwriting efforts. Working with powerhouse drummer Nick Yacyshyn of Baptists, Sumac’s sound cemented as a thick, rich assault of deep riffage and thunderous pummeling, and the material on The Deal was probably the heaviest output we’d heard from Turner yet. Joining the duo (as an auxiliary member at first) was bassist Brian Cook (of Russian Circles/These Arms Are Snakes/Botch fame), and the fit couldn’t have been more perfect. The Deal dazzled everyone who heard it, and received umpteen accolades as well as rightfully earning spots on several best-of-2015 year-end lists (including my own).

Now Sumac is back, with a more evolved aural finesse alongside boatloads of punishing yet tastefully refined and precise brutality. What One Becomes, the band’s Thrill Jockey Records debut, may only list five tracks, but the album clocks in at just shy of an hour. Yet despite the lengthy running time of each song and several abstract ambient sections, to the patient and even remotely open-minded the album won’t feel slow or boring whatsoever. Those who prefer wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am style short and sweet punchy tunes may grow weary from the sparse, heady lulls; this is artful, deliberate execution with several drawn-out valleys complementing the roaring peaks. But the heart of each song packs quite a wallop, and the synthesis of these three dynamic musical personalities creates a sheer force to be reckoned with: when they’re rocking, Sumac feel unstoppable. Get on board, or get out of the way.

Opening track “Image of Control” starts out with an extended, screechy, deconstructed full-band wall of sound intro for a solid few minutes before dropping into some pared-down guitar meandering for another minute then erupting into the meat of the track: at first a mid-tempo crushing groove with Turner’s trademark growling leading the way, followed by a driving tribal section that features Yacyshyn’s mighty prowess behind the kit, angular hits with nimble bass work, into an apocalyptic epic outro and finally scratchy pick scrapes at the very end.

There’s a whole lot going on throughout What One Becomes: every song has a number of sections and carefully choreographed musical runs, although the material doesn’t feel too part-heavy and always manages to retain an organic feel. All of the abstract ambience seems to be executed by live instruments, which helps retain a noticeable earthiness throughout.

Second song “Rigid Man” exemplifies this vibe quite well; it comfortably and brutally rips while incorporating some deceptively intricate tags/turnarounds, and halfway through the running time completely devolves into a few minutes of eerie, ambient, whoosh-y, building soundscapes before unexpectedly returning to heaviness in the form of perhaps the most chop-laden section of the album thus far.

Album closer “Will to Reach” offers another variety of moods ranging from slow and brooding to uptempo and relentless, and again organically weaves together each section effortlessly. By the end of the album, the band appears more autonomous and purposeful than ever.

What One Becomes is undoubtedly a long album, with long songs that do what they want, when they want, how they want. Some folks may not have the attention span to hang with this record from start to finish, but those that do will find a masterful, artful, guttural work that speaks volumes and cohesively combines yet transcends each members’ previous revelatory projects. There’s definitely something for everyone here if you’re prepared to dig in and wait for it, but those who really get what Turner and Co. are going for won’t ever want it to end.

Sumac’s What One Becomes becomes one with your music collection on June 10th via Thrill Jockey; pre-order it here. Listen to album track “Rigid Man” here.

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