It’s pretty astounding that after the nearly half century of heavy metal, bands are still finding ways to sound fresh without necessarily doing anything new. Actually, it’s less astounding than it is just plain fun and reassuring, as the fresh-but-not-new quality typically points to one thing: personality. It takes the individual expressions of those involved to take time-honored traditions and make them stand out. Anyone can get together and play heaps of pilfered Bay Area thrash riffs, but without a group of musicians truly being themselves, you end up with an album that’s blander than a plain rice cake.
Thankfully, Sumerlands do indeed allow themselves to shine on their self-titled debut, as everything from the vocals and leads to drums and rhythm guitars exude a kind of personal refinement. On paper this is very much 80s-styled classic heavy metal music, but because the people within the band tend to approach their craft from a different mindset, they arrive at an album that doesn’t have one direct source. So yeah, it’s pretty fresh, a little dark, full of infectious melodies, and just a smidgen odd.
One of the easier comparisons one could make to Sumerlands is Jake E. Lee-era Ozzy. The guitars have that kind of lead-rhythm activity at most times, and vocalist Phil Swanson (Hour of 13) certainly has more than a little in common with Ozz. But where 80s Ozzy was flashy and full of brash personality from both vocalist and guitarist, Sumerlands prefers to keep things a touch more introspective and almost reserved in a way. For example, opener “Seventh Seal” doesn’t so much win through its familiar elements, but in the way that it presents it all with a kind of ease. Even when the already busy rhythm guitars get busier during the solo section and stay that way for a vocal climax, the reaction isn’t so much “YEAH WAIL ON THEM AXES” as it is “damn, that was a really nice bit of songwriting.”
Beyond the Ozzy comparison, you can hear touches of everyone from Satan and Fates Warning to King Diamond (not on the vocals, sorry) and Sabbath. And while there isn’t exactly much of what one could consider variety on the album, it maintains interest through small, sometimes unexpected variations and the fact that it is only about 32 minutes long. As for the variations, you might get a solo that stops abruptly (the closing moments of “The Guardian”) or one that helps to carry the full narrative of a song (some wonderful work in the slightly doomy “Haunted Forever”). Likewise, there are rhythm guitar parts that include all of those gentlemanly acrobatics, but also passages based on a more delicate, atmospheric approach, such as during the slightly proggy “Lost My Mind.”
Most of all, Sumerlands just always feels classy. This is a guitar player’s guitar album that won’t cause any eye rolls for wankery, and a dream for lovers of catchy vocal work despite not taking even one cheap shortcut to arrive at its earworms. A production featuring natural drums, fat guitar tones, and great echo on the vocals certainly helps, but in the end it all comes back to the performances of the individuals, and the more one listens to the relatively straightforward songs that make up this album, the more one notices the skill and nuance in each performance. It’s tempting to give too much credit to Swanson, who really does give a fantastic, oft-sorrowful and mysterious performance, but every member absolutely nails it.
So it might come as a bit of a surprise that this reviewer actually thinks this band can do better. Yes, this is a damn fine debut, and some of the best traditional-metal-band-doing-the-new-but-not-new thing since Magister Templi dropped their doomy debut, but with the level of skill on display, the only way to go is up. That might be a tad unfair to what is achieved here, which is quite a thing, but I am definitely left wanting just a tad. Perhaps it is the short run time; perhaps it is the odd instrumental closer hinting that the band wants to get weirder; or perhaps it’s just the feeling that they have more complex and diverse songwriting up their sleeves. Whatever it is, the sophomore album can’t get here soon enough. Sumerlands is a band that refuses to sit still within their songs, so it is fully natural to expect an equally restless career path.
Still, this rocks a ton and is definitely not a wait-for-album-number-two situation. So ignore my attempts to predict the future and just listen to it.