Album Review: SUMAC – May You Be Held

[Thrill Jockey; 2020]

Upper-case letter fans SUMAC have come a long way since The Deal, their debut album of 2015. The experimental trio were seen then as perhaps nothing more than a curiosity, a passing “supergroup” of metal’s underground heroes (Aaron Turner of ISIS, Mamiffer and Old Man Gloom on vocals and guitar; bassist Brian Cook of Russian Circles, Botch, These Arms Are Snakes and Roy; and Baptists’ Nick Yacyshyn knocking several barrels of crap out of the drums). Echoes of their previous work was all over their early records. And then something shifted. Something seismic.

Their work with Japanese demi-god Keiji Haino seems to have allowed them the confidence to breathe and explore a range of sonic avenues. Their collaboration album from 2018, American Dollar Bill – Keep Facing Sideways, You’re Too Hideous to Look at Face On, seems to have been a turning point in the outlook (and output) of the group, as their ear for experimentation has matured and developed, seeing them broaden their aural palette. The heady rush of working with Haino certainly seems to have not worn off as yet, as May You Be Held retains the same levels of raw brutality that any track with Turner venting his spleen over it is bound to have. But, there is also now a space between the noise which was first glimpsed on the band’s last album Love in Shadow.

Feedback is a recurring theme on this album, from album opener “A Prayer for Your Path” to “Consumed”, with its wall of noise coming off like Sunn O))) with a treble fetish, as opposed to the bass frequency worshippers we all love them for being. The first track is a gorgeous (has anyone ever use that word to describe SUMAC before?) invocation of ebbing sounds via a bowed vibraphone that sounds like nothing they have put to record before. It’s soothing instead of raucous, calm rather than cathartic. It promises an album that shifts the band’s sound away from the cataclysmic onslaught of earlier releases, instead creating a schism into even more experimental and expansive territory. There is a sense of sumptuous melancholy to “A Prayer for Your Path” that’s echoed later on album closer “Laughter and Silence”; both are calmer than the usual SUMAC fare, stretching into ambient atonality, with the last track being reminiscent of the work of avant-garde free improvisation guitarist Derek Bailey.

May You Be Held‘s title track clocks in at a touch under 20 minutes; it’s an expansive opus of guitar noise, varying time signatures and the synchronicity of musicians in perfect harmony with one another. The track judders, squeals and contorts, each spasm moving the piece forward a little more in to a maelstrom of guitar fury. Around the halfway point a post-hardcore riff enters the fray and we are off in yet another direction, with clattering drums and pounding bass to the fore. The track twists again just as you settle into the groove, so rich are the ideas floating around between the band members and so keen the desire to not be hemmed-in by generic conventions and boundaries. It’s an exhausting track in many ways; so dynamic are its shifts, tones and twists.

Once the mountain of spiralling feedback subsides on “Consumed”, the track reveals itself to be reminiscent of the band’s first record. The guitar chugs ominously over post-metal bass and drums while Turner hollers away in his usual bowel-juddering manner. It’s the most straightforward song on the record, yet few bands would have the spirit of exploration and seemingly intuitive approach to song writing that this trio possess to be able to venture into this sort of territory. Similarly, “The Iron Chair” sounds like SYR-style Sonic Youth, Glen Branca and Boris trying to jam merry hell out of each other with slabs of guitar noise that meanders and floats, before Yacyshyn’s drums try to bring a semblance of structure by underpinning and anchoring the whirling squalls of the guitars. The echoes of Haino are all over this one.  

May You Be Held is a powerful record; a triumph of spirit in the face of ever-increasing uncertainty and the decay of humanity that is evident all around us. It’s quite frankly a ridiculous album in many respects, altering time signatures multiple times, playing with dynamics and cramming a thousand ideas into just one record. Despite the varying shifts of the album, nothing feels bloated or outstays its welcome and that in itself is quite an achievement on a record like this. Direct when it needs to be, ethereal and gorgeously distant at other times, May You Be Held is not for the casual listener seeking instant gratification.