1: 22 August 2018
The expansion of time offers more than just the expansion of terrain. Within the vague realm of “heavy music”, we readily conflate long duration with the vast: bigger structures, outstretched horizon lines. Yet Love In Shadow uses duration to solidify the weight of time itself. I wear the repetitious labour of “Arcing Silver” like a jacket as the one-note bass riff lurches in circles, drained of initiative, enslaved to the onset of habit. I experience the latter half of “The Task” as a slow process of deprivation, just how death and ruin come to claim entities for whom the pressure of pure time is left unchecked. A slow, spacious drum beat gradually sheds all that it carries – the screams, the prickling palm-mutes, the jets of drone – as neglect and repetition emaciate the music until rhythm, that undiluted tick of time itself, is all that is left. All throughout Love In Shadow, time is clenching and unclenching – mercilessly present during those corridors of eternal reprise, then flattened when the thrashes of improvisation (percussion in jackhammer seizure, guitar and bass fractured into noise) condense chronology into sheer immediacy. Sumac are as complex as they’ve always been, but this complexity now resides within more than just the manipulation of tempo and time signature. Instead, it’s about the shift between pre-composed dexterity, cathartic impulse and the entrapment of seemingly endless loops, swerving between acceleration and obliteration, shattering the illusion of our seemingly steady, inexorable progression through time.
Amidst this ephemeral discomfort, the trio are also furthering their exploration into sound as a tactile material. “Attis’ Blade” begins with a single rhythm placed through numerous configurations: one where the instruments merge into a tuneless subterranean tremor, another where they seem to ascend an eternal staircase, another where the guitar harmonics shimmer over the drums like a river smoothing the edges of pebbles, another where the bass clasps at the guitar above and slides down the walls each time. By keeping the rhythm constant, Sumac demonstrate the ways in which frequency can be pressed together and alloyed, producing elements of different coarseness and colour. Improvisation is also used to reduce instruments to pure texture, and during the moments of quiet (as in the void that beckons during the opening of “Ecstasy Of Unbecoming”), the guitar chimes like petals wilting and falling, intermittent and grimly devoid of effort. During the second half of “Arcing Silver”, two guitars are left leaking feedback and harmonics, generating a zone of stifled and stale air between them, as Aaron Turner experiments with the different arrangements of tonal friction. Just how Love In Shadow manipulates time at a fundamental level, the record is less interested in melody and more centred on the alchemy of sound in combination: the negative shapes painted in the space between pitches, or the phantom resonances that push upward, like the buds of volcanoes, between two tectonic chords in collision. Throughout the entire record I feel throttled by doubt, unable to depend upon the continuity of time or the stillness of objects. It’s both unsettling and somewhat optimistic; forever perishing, forever comprehending itself anew.
As I focus on how echo pounces off the snare drum during “Arcing Silver” in a sharp, concrete-coated gasp, I realise the importance of Kurt Ballou’s production on Love In Shadow. To learn that the album was recorded live with minimal overdubs comes as no surprise – so much of this music depends on the trio stabilising eachother during moments of sudden redirection, or pushing eachother toward ecstasies that are the exclusive domain of a collective in collision. It also allows Ballou to capture the air of the room: the interstitial space in which textures curdle together, producing hybrids of distortion and cymbal that exist independent from their source instruments.
I could return to that opening section of “Attis’ Blade”, where that galloping rhythm is augmented over time. When the drums burst in proper, the instruments react in such a way that dissolves the divisions between them, becoming a throbbing fog of atomised factory parts, all grease and metal and dissected hydraulics. As the group gradually splay into improvisation later in the same track, Nick Yacyshyn’s cymbal and Turner’s guitar noise become a single shrill emission, just as the rumble of Brian Cook’s bass blurs into the thick ricochet of kick drum and toms: new elements quivering into being. Ballou’s production realises that “live” recording doesn’t reduce the music to raw human spirit, but allows a band to document those junctures of energy that only arise when players are sharing sonic company – apt for an album that seeks to press beneath the variances in our more superficial human characteristics, in order to highlight the more ephemeral commonalities of spirit and experience.
Today I’ve been trying to decipher the forces at work on “Ecstasy Of Unbecoming”, which is the closing track on Love In Shadow. Without question there’s an audible weight of fatigue – perhaps inevitable after the slog of the 50 minutes prior – but there’s also a process of reflection at work. For one, I respond to the more overtly emotional hue within Turner’s choice of guitar chords, some of which feel like they’re weeping or shot red with melancholy. In particular, I’m thinking of the sequence of high harmonies that appears during the track’s primary riff, which ring out just before the band crash back into a more guttural, mechanistic mode. I’m also thinking of the lonely guitar improvisation that yawns like a canyon across the composition’s middle third. Last year I spoke with Turner about his love for Neil Young’s soundtrack to the film Dead Man, and there’s a vague reminiscence in how his guitar rolls across the emptiness, pausing to absorb the sensation of every gesture before generating one anew. Finally, I’m always struck by the very first appearance of bass and drums in this track: a soft, ominous plosive occurring somewhere in the distance, like a blown geyser witnessed from a hundred miles back. There is dread and sadness here – the sort that settles upon the mind when everything is still, cultivated from broad, philosophical extrapolations of wandering thought. And yet, the lurching fury of the track’s closing moments shake this sediment away. Melancholy is ejected into the air like dust. Deep red is replaced by a cathartic black.
It’s time to explicitly contemplate Love In Shadow in the framing of its concept: a complicated and cartographic exploration of love, appraised for all its gleaming opportunity and wretched shading. It’s interesting that love is often considered in terms of transcendence, as an upward pull that leaves the hard edges of humanity behind, when perhaps a metaphor of fulfilment would be more accurate: an outward burst beyond the walls of socialised restraint, not abandoning the mould of humanity but filling it up all at once. Love becomes an energy that our moderating tendencies are powerless to keep in check. And thus, those moments where Sumac seem to be thrashing at the edges of self-abandonment – palms pressed against the limits of their instruments, driven by frenzied improvisation or the bore of repetition – only works to further assert the outlines of those instruments. Turner’s contorted dissonances draws greater attention to the guitar as machinery, stripping away the distraction of melody to trace the electricity channelled from string to coil to cone. Repetition brings futility to Yacyshyn’s drum patterns, shifting emphasis to the enunciation of each drum instead. The throttling low frequencies of Cook’s bass guitar often refuse to provide tonal direction but rather threaten its opposite, dragging a quaking hairline fracture across the music’s midriff, abandoning pretence to sheer energy. The culmination of all three is often unpleasant, but such is the unbinding instruments from the hesitations of social domesticity, handed over to love at its most celebratory and grotesque.