Countless songwriters only scratch the surface of love as a connective human experience. Sumac transcends that trope on Love In Shadow. The post-metal power trio pushes itself to its compositional limit on its third LP, pouring all of its primal passion into an erratic rumination on a cornerstone of consciousness.
Sumac is vocalist-guitarist Aaron Turner of Isis, Baptists’ percussionist Nick Yacyshyn, and bassist Brian Cook of Russian Circles. The boundary-pushing supergroup broke out with 2015’s The Deal, and found its footing with 2016’s What One Becomes. A recent collaboration with Japanoise legend Keiji Haino embraced nonlinear abstraction, aspects of which carry over onto Love In Shadow. Experimenting, Sumac distills and distorts its style in an impenetrably challenging statement.
Clocking in at more than an hour with only four tracks, Love In Shadow is dense and unpredictable. Producer Kurt Ballou, of Converge, captured lightning in a bottle by recording these tracks live and mixing them with minimal post-production. Love in Shadow’s 21-minute opener, “The Task,” spotlights this authentic aesthetic with visceral sonics and believable performances.
Yacyshyn immediately busts out his unbelievable chops alongside Cook and Turner’s angular riffs. The three evoke Cook’s old band Botch with their unrelenting precision, but their tone remains massive and filthy. Cook’s gigantic bass tone holds down the low-end by itself, allowing Turner to climb the fretboard for skin-crawling dissonance. The first six minutes of “The Task” provide an album’s worth of ideas and dynamic shifts, but the song soon collapses into freeform noise.
“The Task” spotlights Love In Shadow’s jarring transitions, like the menacing doom metal riff that pounces out from behind clean guitar. Cook’s top string and Yacyshyn’s floor tom thud like a dinosaur’s footstep, intuiting even when Turner’s expressively ominous lines become a droning tremolo. The following eight-minute dirge approaches early Swans levels of creepy. Yacunshyn displaces the downbeat of his plodding rhythm, creating slow-motion paranoia for a demented ritual of inhuman shrieks. The band displays incredible chemistry as Turner embellishes muted bass chugs with discordant improvisation.
“Stripped and raw/ Under threat of rending blows/ The task of souls imbued with light/ Risk our hands in others’ held,” Turner bellows with emotional abandon during the final moments of “The Task.” Faith Coloccia’s elegant organ drones elevate his guttural roars with a semi-sung timbre. The chaos resolves, revealing Sumac’s message. Love is for the road-weary, the persevering and the vulnerable.
Themes of primordial love retain coherency in the midst of the craziest auras. “Attis’ Blade” gets its name from the self-mutilating pagan god of vegetation, whose recurring suicide and rebirth mirror the world’s cycle of life and death. Sumac uses that concept to explore a self-destructive side of affection, “No hope for healing/ Seen by eyes grown dim/ Still he throws himself on clustered Thorns.”
This track takes a more familiar turn as tom drums, bass and guitar crescendo to the song’s earth-shattering prog-sludge groove. Sumac’s balance of syncopation and simplicity keeps these pummeling metal passages interesting as they lumber along. Just when it seems the trio has found its bearings, it careens without warning into free-rock insanity.
Sumac crushes the walls between extreme metal and harsh noise with grating feedback and frenetic percussive flurries. Relaxing is never an option, as the most serene auras teeter on the edge of disarray. Sumac reverts post-rock requiems to caustic impressionism like a sonic sucker-punch, tumbling from gargantuan breakdowns to Merzbow-style freakishness. In the midst of these maddening arrangements, the band still brings its metallic cavalcade back to bludgeoning riffs.
Love In Shadow’s violent, brooding nature charges Sumac’s calculated execution with raw instinct. Cook and Yacunshyn fall into a tribal feel for the first half of “Arcing Silver.” Over this primitive foundation, Turner channels his inner Michael Geara into deformed guitar. The band remains dexterous in its mania, whetherit’s tension-filled feedback walls or acrobatic math-metal. This cut emphasizes Turner’s limited vocal range. With several notable exceptions, his low growls can become buried in busier sonics. Still, his barrel-chested delivery complements the bone-crunching riff toward the end of the song.
For all the band’s polarized chain-pulling, Sumac makes deliberate choices to an engrossing effect. “Ecstasy of Unbecoming” explosion from whispery noodling to destructive drones isn’t just a musical scare. It’s a skillful juxtaposition of tonality. Mangled Mastodon-like riffs drop to five-minutes of improvised guitar work, only to burst into one final explosion of energy—and it actually works. The fact three people played this live with few overdubs proves Sumac’s dedication to its craft and vision.
Turner’s apocalyptic farewell brings Sumac full circle: “Shards in pinprick constellation/ Seek the peace of utter blankness/ Intoxicated by the vapors as the core to ash is turned.” Antithetical to the search for identity on What One Becomes, Love In Shadow loses itself in liberation from individualism. Casting off inhibition, the members feed into each other’s artistic energy. In spite of their brutal exterior, they embody the connective tissue love provides in a chaotic world.