SUMAC – Love in Shadow

3 out of 5

Label: Thrill Jockey

Produced by: Kurt Ballou

An absolutely valiant effort, brimming with the right attitude – and with some undeniably killer moments – but suffering from the lack-of-structure-without-payoff that improv projects often do.

After teaming up with Keiji Hano for the improvised American Dollar Bill, Aaron Turner and his SUMAC crew – Nick Yachyshyn on drums; Brian Cook on bass – decided to try that formula out on their own. I’m for this: my main complaint with ADB was that it sounded like SUMAC waiting around for Keiji – i.e. they weren’t really playing in sync – and so the thought of a band with the initial mantra of wanting to be the heaviest sounding band ever, and with the pedigree of its individual players, allowing themselves to ping-pong off of one another at will promised some potential.

Opener ‘The Task’ seems to fulfill this potential: it is all out fury, maintained for like ten minutes straight, out-5ive-ing and out thrashing any other group who’s attempted a similar level of metal, topped by Turner’s unbeatable, tortured howl. …And then we get to the improv bits. The Task hits a hard stop; Turner starts plucking at his guitar, rather aimlessly. After a few bars of this, the song finds its way to some cleaner, gentler moments, picking up a beat again. So, okay, it’s sorta two songs, but the first one is amazing, and the second one is gearing up… for another hard stop. It’s back to loudness thereafter, but the magic has dissipated.

‘Attis’ Blade’ finds a middle ground and sticks to it: a constant rumble. Not as devastating as how we started, but a definite rocker, still powerful stuff. But this is like the opposite of improv – it feels safe. The track doesn’t deviate much during its bloated 15 minutes.

‘Arcing Silver’ hits a near perfect high mark, and is perhaps, coincidentally, the shorter track here. This has the intensity, it has some open-ended noise, it has cleaner moments, and it all ebbs and flows together like it’s meant to be together. Yes, maybe my ears just don’t prefer improv – and here again I glance to some albums I own that might suggests otherwise, though I digress – but admittedly, Love in Shadow’s best track, by my opinion, is the one that sounds like a preconceived song.

Finally, ‘Ecstasy of Unbecoming’ is sort of a more successful combination of ‘Task’ and ‘Attis’, taking the latter’s chugga-chugga momentum for its first portion, and incorporating the former’s wandering, clean guitar work a bit more organically, and then building up to an undeniably insane conclusion. Except it’s not the conclusion, thereby repeating Attis’ sin of going on too long, as well as perpetuating the improv gaffe of not knowing when to end things.

Turner’s lyrics are as gloomy and vague as ever, reading, to me, as focused on the futility of, like, life, but his delivery is primal stuff, and we know the album sounds good under Kurt Ballou’s oversight. Heart’s in the right place, but improvisation just might not be the right path for SUMAC.