Sutra by Yakuza

Release date: May 19, 2023
Label: Svart Records

According to the dictionary, a ‘sutra’ is described as an aphorism (or ‘story with a moral or truth’) emerging from both Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Long-term fans of Chicago sludge outfit Yakuza will recognise this nod to Eastern esotericism, referencing as it does earlier album themes (think 2006’s Samsara or 2007’s Transmutations) alongside the band’s repeated use of Eastern instrumentation and musical flavours. However, their decision to title their latest album Sutra proves rather appropriate: this album is a collection of sonic stories, taking their listeners on a journey of contrasting styles and sounds. Do we learn any lessons by their end?

Let’s start with what we already know. Yakuza have been plugging away under the radar since 1999, staying broadly true to their progressive take on sludge metal throughout their series of excellent albums and sacrificing mainstream appeal in the process. Despite some high-profile friends and appearances (they played on the Vans Warped Tour, fact fans), they have remained resolutely uncompromising and forward-thinking. With Sutra, the band returns with an expansive, adventurous album which reaffirms their status as one of the more creative American sludge bands.

Kicking off with an angular, piercing guitar lead, a sludgy stomp of a riff kicks the doors down amid a proggy and slightly disjointed rhythm. The chugging guitar calls to mind something from Mastodon’s Blood and Thunder period, with a major dollop of more recent Gojira thrown in for added heft. Guitarist Matt McClelland’s no-nonsense approach to riffing acts as a consistent companion throughout the album, with occasional variations on a theme rather than wildly differing tones or techniques. His grandiose riff on ‘Walking God’ is a particular highlight, contrasting with dissonant saxophone tones.

As was the case in previous releases, Yakuza demonstrate clear influence from the world of jazz rock and fusion. Traditional jazz instrumentation aside, the chopping time signatures and complex digressions bear this out throughout the album. ‘Capricorn Rising’ complements the sax with chugging riffs amidst an air of ‘heaviness’, referencing King Crimson at their harshest. This transitions into ‘Burn Before Reading’, a surprisingly beautiful foray into pure jazz rock along the lines of Weather Report’s catchier output. It serves as an effective palate cleanser mid-record and demonstrates that Yakuza can foray into calmer waters when they choose to.

That’s not to suggest that the album is overly dense or opaque. ‘Echoes from the Sky’ calls to mind the anthemic, air-punching doom metal of modern Paradise Lost, before slipping into a miasmatic cacophony of sax, hand drums and proggy basslines. The gloomy, plodding ‘Embers’ evokes the sort of atmosphere found on an Ahab record, and the thrashy ‘Into Forever’ hits hard while featuring interesting horn-playing. Sutra saves its best for last, however, with the final track ‘Never the Less’ closing the show with an engaging blend of sax riffs duelling with guitars, while also featuring the best chorus on the album.

Singer Bruce Lamont puts in a decent shift with competent if somewhat utilitarian vocals. Although the vocals have never sought to steal the show on a Yakuza record, their straightforwardness relative to the musical diversions occurring around them stands out. The inevitable exception which proves the rule is the second track ‘Alice’, which features all manner of ghostly reverse-vocals, some hardcore-adjacent barked shouts and an excellent Ozzy impression towards the end. Yakuza have always felt like a band that could be fully instrumental, and while Lamont’s vocals do add an interesting flavour to the music, they do not set out to steal anyone’s thunder.

Although far from the must experimental or boundary-pushing release in recent years, with Sutra Yakuza have reaffirmed their well-earned status as one of the more interesting and dynamic voices operating in sludge metal. Without being overly ‘progressive’ by prog metal standards, and certainly not out-there enough to be considered avant-garde, the album packs a punch while also offering more to chew on than the typical sludge record. If each track on Sutra were a chapter in a book, it would be a compelling read indeed.

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