May You Be Held by SumacRelease date: October 2, 2020
Label: Thrill Jockey
I still feel bamboozled as all things considered Sumac isn’t a band I should like. Abrasive avant-garde which almost displays as metal (jazz-less) jazz should not tickle me as much as May You Be Held does. I find myself swimming through the dense instrumentals and the undulating improvisation for the moments of raw power that escape at different times on each listen. Sumac does nothing to silence the mountain of ‘pretentious’ claims and I can’t understand why my voice isn’t one of those.
Maybe I am older, maybe I am deeply in love with Aaron Turner, but there are so many things I shouldn’t like. I hate jazz and technically there isn’t any on display here, but Sumac take jazz ideas and crush them through a metal filter. There is no brass, but there is plenty of improvisation, areas of space, noise and cymbals crashes, but also there is so much more.
‘Consumed’ is a great example of the glories of Sumac. Within the 17 minutes there is furious riffage made up of the brilliant bass work of Brian Cook, Aaron Turner’s scorching guitar and mesmeric drumming from Nick Yacyshyn, which would even appease JK Simmons in Whiplash. Turner’s vocals sound the best they ever have, and he moves from shrieks to deep growls with ease and accomplishment. The true excellence of this song, and what causes the album to work overall, is the continuous movements in the song structures. Due to the improvisation and the track duration you will get caught by different parts on each pass through.
‘May You Be Held’ is the only other song that Turner’s vocals appear to any great length and within the 20 minutes this does tread far more into the spatial quieter moments before cracking back. The first four minutes are belting before descending into its first improvised break and this might be what frustrates some people. In the same way Old Man Gloom can obfuscate in amongst moments of absolute genius Sumac does it on an even grander scale. Round about the ten-minute mark the band snaps back into a new passage which has some resemblance to what came before but in the gap nothing much actually happened.
The breaks and improvisations involve the drums focusing on cymbals, the guitars rapidly strumming and the bass warping or swapping with the guitar whilst it traverses elsewhere. ‘The Iron Chair’ does feature some vocals but like the opening and closing tracks it is mainly a distorted piece almost more aligned with the noise genre. ‘Laughter and Silence’ funnily enough ends on a few minutes of silence which seems a fitting end to an album that can feel quite strange.
One thing that may draw me more favourably to Sumac is from having witnessed them live. I was swaying as to whether I liked the band and I felt a bit disconnected with what I had heard on record. The live performance they produced in Glasgow in 2019 solidified my enjoyment of the band and encouraged me when going back through the older albums. May You Be Held certainly contains some very enjoyable moments, but due to the amount surrounding those highlights I can fully understand why people will be negative, either way none can argue that this isn’t unique.