The funny thing about Isis is that their legendary status among metal bands has only escalated since the break-up in 2010. Mainstream rock artists sport their t-shirts, Wikipedia editors irrationally credit them as the founders of post-metal, and pessimists grasp at straws to sling negative criticism. They went out at the top of their game, and the fact is you will never hear a mediocre Isis album. They quit before that could become a possibility. The downside is that everything frontman Aaron Turner has contributed to since unfairly finds itself treated by the media as a sort of side project.
Maybe Old Man Gloom avoided that fate. The success in 2014 of The Ape of God (and its sister album, The Ape of God) finally got people to start talking about them as a proper band, not just another project involving “that Isis guy”. Sumac will have a harder time escaping the persona, because it is essentially a two man project between Turner and Baptists drummer Nick Yacyshyn. (Brian Cook of Russian Circles and These Arms are Snakes provides the bass as a “session member” and probably did not contribute to the actual song writing.) But regarding Old Man Gloom or Sumac as secondary projects implies a primary one. Isis is dead, and Aaron Turner most certainly isn’t. Sumac deserves to be taken seriously.
Besides, if The Deal is any indication, Turner is still well within his prime. This album is, for me at least, the best thing I’ve heard him contribute to since Wavering Radiant, and his style merges perfectly with Yacyshyn’s highly acclaimed drumming. I want more. I want The Deal to be the first entry in a long and productive discography that puts Sumac on the map permanently as an outstanding musical collaboration.
song: Thorn in the Lion’s Paw
The biggest negative comment I’ve heard about The Deal is that it sounds bland on first listen. While I never personally felt that way, it might be worth asking “what Isis album didn’t?” Old Man Gloom have written some pretty explosive material, but if you’re familiar with Turner at all you should be prepared to dedicate multiple listens for the album to grow on you. My initial impression of The Deal was of something blissfully even-keel. It generated that feeling of perpetual flowing motion that I always got off Isis albums, and for that it amassed way more plays than The Ape of God ever managed before I even got around to giving it close attention.
The “if Isis were really heavy” interpretation of Sumac definitely holds up over time, but what grows on me most is Nick Yacyshyn. If you take, for instance, the passage from 4:00 to 6:00 in “Thorn in the Lion’s Paw”, Turner’s sequence of brief repeated phrases could definitely border on bland were they the complete picture. They were never meant to be; he found a drummer in Yacyshyn who could plug the void with a really imaginative progression. In managing to somehow feel modest even when erupting into blast beats at the end, Yacyshyn lets you enjoy the build-up without being swept away by the intensity. It’s a tall order for music this extreme. It’s easy to forget how mellow Isis was in comparison until you go back and listen. The next track, “Hollow King”, focuses on Yacyshyn throughout, centered around a 3 minute drum solo over drone guitar that goes wild on the toms in a manner reminiscent of Atsuo Mizuno from Boris (speaking of post-metal legends).
song: The Deal
“Blight’s End Angel” has garnered the most attention, with its rewarding 10-minute progression that feels perhaps the most classically “post-metal” of any track on the album, but it’s the title track that stands out to me most, for better or worse. Throughout The Deal we hear Turner playing around with some mathy licks, enough to make me wonder if he’s been listening to a lot of Converge lately. “The Deal” brings this out more than most, along with maybe a touch of Mastodon and a pretty groovy if short-lived stoner metal beat down at 3:30. Nearly 14 minutes long, the song never really develops so much as it devolves, ending with an even slower tempo than its initial stretched-out plod. But its lack of speed, coupled with intermittent breaks into undistorted, mostly drumless transition passages, all serve to emphasize the real crunch and intensity of Turner’s guitar tones on this album. Compartmentalized into distinct movements rather than smoothly progressing, it really lacks the rest of the album’s flow. That does not really help its case, yet I do really like Turner’s math/prog tendencies in small doses, and the track makes sense in context. The break from the album’s smooth sailing isn’t an accident; it’s an end. The only remaining song, “The Radiance of Being”, is a rather pretty, minimalistic outro.
Over all, The Deal is pretty solid. The first 35 minutes drift along with a surprisingly pleasant vibe, given the levels of distortion and intensity. The title track is a bit harder to swallow, but its seeming lack of cohesion took a while to actually rub me wrong; it sounded just as good at first, but wore out faster than the songs before it. That’s easy to forgive. Of the post-Isis Aaron Turner projects I’ve heard, Sumac is easily the most appealing to my personal tastes. He and Yacyshyn make an outstanding team, and I would love to see them commit to a long-term partnership that builds off this album.
Pick up a copy of The Deal by Sumac on Profound Lore Records.