Album Review: SLIFT – ILION

[Sub Pop; 2024]

Within the sonic dominions they traverse, titanic Toulouse trio SLIFT are like swashbuckling road warriors, holding alliance to no higher authority. Ultimately, this makes them free-spirited apostates who can wipe the canvas clean with each record they put out. If there is one close spiritual kin you could name, it might actually be Norwegian legends Motorpsycho; another three-piece band who don’t believe it’s particularly anathema to release an album of grandiloquent, furrow-long psych rock jams, and then do another one that flirts with the greatest tropes of classic rock.

It’s perfectly reasonable to explain SLIFT’s vagabond spirit: one of their early inspirations is the primal playing style of Osees’s John Dwyer, before its founding members – the brothers Jean and Remí Fossat and Canek Flores – all had their collective eureka moment in Jimi Hendrix’s “1983: A Merman I Should Be”. Dwelling in unknown waters, SLIFT could resurface and approach their records with the curiosity and pluckiness of a protagonist in an Edward Rice Burroughs sci-fi novel. The Frenchmen are now enjoying the fruits bearing out of this snowballing creativity: after the EP Space Is TheyKey, SLIFT hauled their swords skyward with albums La Planète Inexplorée and UMMON. This got them into the crosshairs of indie flagship label Sub Pop, who have diligently been homing in on non-Anglocentric talent over the past few years.

ILION, the first record SLIFT have released under Sub Pop, is a direct continuation of predecessor UMMON: both records are – according to the band – inspired by the ancient Greek tales of Homer’s Odyssey. UMMON – which leans a lot more in the structured garage rock side of SLIFT – was considered by the band as a big blustering retelling of myth, while ILION takes away all the emblazoned yarn spinning, taking the listener right in the middle of the shit.

The opening title track of ILION immediately shell shocks the listener with a colossal, blistering 11-minute neo-prog workout that fully showcases SLIFT’s technical proficiency, with each band member flying completely off the rails behind their instrument. Around the six and the half minute mark, the fracas simmers down into an unsettling ambience, as we oversee the destruction while the dust settles. Jean Fossat’s wretched war cry signals another skirmish, as guitars pierce and wail in horror, escalating into pure cataclysm. The song sounds like King Crimson, Devin Townsend and Mastodon forming a supergroup together, and it’s hard to fathom how the hell all this aural onslaught comes from just three individuals.

The band doesn’t give the listener a breather either, as “Nimh” is another Spartan and maximalist affair with its air raid signal guitar bursts and thundering pulse. The only continuity the band seem give a fuck about on ILION is brute force. These eight tracks explore a more cinematic tension, with no repeating verses and chorus to speak of. It seems SLIFT don’t want the listener to get too familiar with destruction, which seems like a righteous objective to begin with. Jean Fossat’s vocals alternate between eerie vocal mantras and anguishes scream-singing. “Nimh” marks the first tonal shift of ILION, as sunlight seems to be peaking through the dark clouds about one-third into the song with a hypnotic guitar sequence and a repetitive drum roll – played so tightly that it sounds like a tape loop on repeat. Jean Fossat still sounds ready to rumble with his gruff, Jaz Coleman-indebted growl, and the band tighten the screws accordingly.

At around the seven minute mark, the band briefly show their psychedelic side, with a mellow part that recalls Black Sabbath’s “Planet Caravan”. Out of the blue, haunting female voices appear like angels ready to carry us heavenward from utter damnation. But there’s no deus ex machina moment here, as SLIFT go right back into bashing our very skulls in. A part of me wishes SLIFT would explore these sequences with more care, in order to take their music someplace novel and engaging. Because no matter how impressive the band is in their destructive zone, you find yourself growing increasingly dulled by it. I would hope that’s deliberate, because, more than ever, we are getting desensitised by the abject terror and suffering of war and genocide. With this in mind, it’s easy to conceive that ILION‘s brisk shifts in dynamics and tone are part of the point.

SLIFT offer plenty of moments that trigger pure hyperventilation: “The Words That Have Never Been Heard” begins with minimal bass throbs that mimic a rising heartbeat, setting up a hefty jump scare-moment once the drums kick in, making us spill our drinks. The song contains many cool elements, ranging from 70s-prog rock synths and mad priest doomsday-spelling. The jazz-fusion fracas of “Confluence” takes SLIFT into a more ethereal and melodic spiritual plane.

“Weaver’s Weft”‘s gothic dirge, meanwhile, sounds like we’re transported right back to the medieval age, where witch doctors, cannibalism, public hangings and other wretched practices were part of the everyday occurrence. Near the end, SLIFT alternate a gentle little guitar strum with colossal blasts of fury as an instrumental call-and-response, to near-comedic effect. Almost as if to say: yes, we’re just having some tea and conversation amidst the chaos and carnage – out of sight, out of mind.

The atmospheric “Uruk” once again showcases what we talked about earlier: how SLIFT recall these aha-moments of all these other bands, yet still pivot from their own creative instincts. This one recalls Worlds Apart-era Trail of Dead and the dark post-rock of Slint, a band whose name deviates from SLIFT by only one letter. The song collapses into full-blown improv one moment, then flirts with a classic rock-styled riff the next. The sheer restlessness of ILION is at times frustrating, as you feel the band could capitalise on what is an abundance of ideas in each song, just to be abandoned without a second guess.

“The Story That Has Never Been Told” – as a counterpoint – feels the most measured in its progression, sounding like Led Zeppelin’s “Achilles Last Stand” and “No Quarter” colliding in space, breaking up together into the Earth’s atmosphere and landing in some kind of wondrous microclimate. The song is broken up into an almost Celtic folk hymn before SLIFT once again pull the reigns and rocket off into the intergalactic prog-o-sphere. It’s hard not to think of SLIFT as a much heavier version of fellow Francophone progressive rock masters Magma, who also have a thing for post-apocalyptic sci-fi scenarios, albeit on a much more conceptual level.

You can sense SLIFT might be entering that territory though. The machine-like death march of “Enter The Loop” marks the definitive end of ILION‘s helter skelter space voyage into what often feels like too many places at once. This track, surprisingly, stays pretty much in one place, a rumble of guitar feedback and guttural synths, almost like an alternate theme for the Terminator franchise. It feels like a steel prison built to contain this primal natural force, a dour inevitability.

Listening to ILION sometimes feels like a similar slog, that feeling you get when you watch Sephiroth’s Super Nova summon spell for the umpteenth time, watching the over-the-top planetary destruction unfold and knowing you’re royally fucked at the end of it. But you gotta tip your hat to SLIFT for not faking the funk either. With pop music gradually crumbling under the heel of the algorithm-driven technocracy, their grotesque bricolage of styles isn’t so easily replicated or defined. ILION finds SLIFT banging at the walls, and at the very least, leaving some serious dents in the process.