Semente is the second full-length from Portugal’s Sinistro, but the first full-length with vocalist Patrícia Andrade as an official member of the band. (Sinistro and Andrade collaborated on a 2013 release before she joined.) Stylistically, the band touches on a variety of sounds that combine into a slippery gestalt. You might call it doom or sludge, rock or even shoegaze; none of those is wrong, exactly, but none feels complete. Semente is an album of rich, honeyed sweetness, and it resounds with a magic deeper than its aims.
Album opener “Partida” launches into a full-band blocky riff with no build or prelude. Right from the start, there’s a clear tension between the squareness of the drumming and the desire of the bass and guitar – which often thwack along in rubbery unison – to whip up a bit of looseness by pushing against the beat. Truthfully, Semente would be improved by drumming with a little more finesse, but because Sinistro is so successful at layering the fairly simple structure of these songs with beautifully tactile textures, it’s an easy-to-overlook shortcoming.
If the individual songs are somewhat light on easy hooks and memorable choruses, Semente overcomes that flaw by tracing a clear arc of languid, sinuous melancholy throughout the album. Andrade’s voice is the clear centerpiece, with its commanding range and shapeshifting style, while the band that backs her alternates between stern clobbering and deftly textured accompaniment. A useful point of reference is the full-length Jarboe & Neurosis collaboration, but while Sinistro’s intensity never reaches the level of Neurosis, the band’s softness is sweeter, more lilting, and aching with a seductively dark undercurrent.
The wonderful thing about Sinistro is that the band sounds utterly uninterested in loudness for its own sake. As such, the quieter passages of Semente – which vastly outnumber the louder – aren’t thrown in as a pittance for contrast, but instead form a richly varied bedrock from which the band occasionally leaps into head-down riffing. This also means that Sinistro seems singularly unpreoccupied with whether or not they sound like a metal band. Andrade’s deliriously sensual vocals betray a bossa nova influence (listen for Bebel Gilberto-esque phrasing), but also echo Wata’s whisper-singing from the sublime shoegaze-pop of Boris’s Attention Please. The climax of the album’s first great peak “Corpo Presente,” with its squall of horns and reeds, recalls Radiohead’s “National Anthem.”
The pacing and sequencing of the album are absolutely stellar, with the trip-hop of the title track acting as a strategic reset between the album’s open and close. “Semente” also leads into “Reliquia” with an invisible transition that opens up into a massive torrent of noise. “Reliquia” eventually pounds itself into a frenzy of a crescendo, with hammered piano chords that give way to organ swirls while Andrade peals out an effortless sounding, octave-plus arpeggio. “A Visita” is particularly wistful, and not too far from Slowdive. Andrade’s voice shows off its expressive range here, moving from an inches-away whisper to a keening, bell-pure clarity heard from a distance.
While the opening of album closer “Fragmento” sounds, bizarrely, a bit like the mumbling Scottish slowcore of Arab Strap, its closing devotes itself to the kind of serious amplifier worship that surely works its humid magic better live than on record, but it works for Sinistro here because A) they haven’t overused the same tricks throughout the album, and B) sometimes getting hammered by the same concrete riff for several minutes is exactly what your stupid body needs. At about the 3:55 mark, it’s not immediately clear which line is the guitar and which the voice, because their tones intermingle and cross so seamlessly. The simplistic stomp of the song’s final minutes is not initially convincing, given the subtlety that has preceded it, but it essentially turns the whole band into a drum corps of singular determination.
For as good as Semente is, the exciting thing is that Sinistro sounds like a band that is just beginning to realize its strengths. While the band wisely gives Andrade’s vocals the room they need to shine, one gets the sense that if they could foster the same kind of fluidity and effortless variety in their riffs as she does with her singing, the next album could be a truly brilliant one. Even so, a certain untranslatable sadness lingers in each one of Semente‘s economical 44 minutes, and if life means embracing incompleteness and imperfection even as we try to improve and surpass ourselves, then you could do much worse for a soundtrack than these songs in that silk-dark key.