SUMAC Offer Brutal Empathy on Their Art Metal Epic 'May You Be Held'
Published Oct 01, 2020SUMAC ask that you interpret their fourth full-length as an expression of care: unconditional care for yourself, for others, and for the world at large. The interpretative task might not be an easy one, as the band is most associated with genres whose musical signifiers do not often call to mind vulnerability, solidarity or empathy. But SUMAC have been a band about love since their inception, and May You Be Held is its most unreserved expression of this ideal yet.
That result is indebted to the improvisation on the album. Those paying close attention will note that each consecutive SUMAC offering has increasingly integrated free-form and textural approaches into their otherwise crystalized compositions. MYBH is characterized by a rethinking of the band members' musical relationships with each other, especially when untethered to the expectations of musical form.
For instance, album opener "A Prayer for Your Path" finds drummer Nick Yacyshyn on bowed vibraphone, a move that reinterprets his role in the band. Where his drumming is often painterly, weaving in and out of the structured solidity that guitar and bass riffs provide, the bowed vibraphone sounds utterly tectonic in his hands. It grounds the fleeting swells and screeches of the rest of the band while calling to mind massive shifts over deep time.
Bassist Brian Cook is well-known for running the tonal gamut, but even he achieves something immaculate on "The Iron Chair." Not only does he showcase his breadth of sound, but he does so while blending into the track so as to almost disappear. It's an essential contribution, as "The Iron Chair" is without a doubt the album's most potent track. Unlike the two other free-form explorations on MYBH, it shows that all three musicians are capable of being improvisatory without entirely abandoning the brutality they are best known for. The band achieves perhaps their most ecstatic moment to date about three and a half minutes in, when, after a single second of silence and a five-hit drum fill, Aaron Turner launches the band into a frenzy with the yell of "a black chair!"
For those not moved by this more unhinged side of the band, MYBH may prove disappointing. The kinds of heights previous records achieved by knotting riff after pummeling riff together are scant. In moments when the band members do find themselves coalescing towards a more unified effort, the results are decidedly less heady than on past albums. Indeed, much of the middle third of the title track is about as knuckle-dragging as SUMAC can conceivably get. Still, MYBH makes the case that the field recording that plays out album closer "Laughter and Silence" is now as integral a part of the Sumac sound as any other. If you're willing to consider a musical choice like that to be just as "heavy" as a lurching dirge or a colossal chug, then May You Be Held will prove a rewarding and expansive listen. (Thrill Jockey)