Say what you want about Aaron Turner, just don’t call him lazy. Since the dissolution of his band Isis in 2010, Turner has found plenty of ways to keep himself occupied, most of which involve creating excellent music and art. Since relocating from LA to the seclusion of Vashon Island, Turner has continued to churn out a variety of thought-provoking, challenging music with a regularity that’s nearly inhuman. Between Old Man Gloom, Mammifer (with wife Faith Coloccia), Split Cranium, and now Sumac, Turner has been the primary driving force behind no less than nine full-length releases plus EPs and collaborations since 2011, in addition to running two separate labels. His prolific output only seems to be accelerating with the 2016 release of Sumac’s newest record, What One Becomes. This release comes only 16 months after the release of their debut LP, 2015’s excellent The Deal.
Sumac, which originated and gestated with Turner, developed into a fully-fledged project with the inclusion of Vancouver-based drummer Nick Yacyshyn. The band enlisted the help of omnipresent producer Kurt Ballou of Converge to produce their new record. This LP also saw the involvement of session bassist Brian Cook as an integral part of the songwriting process.
What One Becomes is a challenging yet rewarding listen that makes no concessions to the casual listener, likely a conscious decision by Turner, who has professed in interviews that the primary objective of the LP was a critical self-examination of individuation and personal anxiety. The major musical devices used here are dissonance and tension, with rarely a transition to any measurable resolution. Instead, songs rely on the seemingly telepathic abilities of Yacyshyn, Turner, and Cook to weave their way through dense and forceful compositions featuring myriad rhythmic and melodic digressions. These are made to appear effortless, through the intense focus and proficiency of the musicians involved. Indeed, the talents of Yacyshyn, in particular, are on full display and approach levels of freakish skill and intensity, and the ability of his colleagues to match the razor sharp transitions and build-ups is awe-inspiring.
Kurt Ballou’s production presence makes a substantial impact on this record. Despite its numerous digressions and musical experiments, What One Becomes feels lean. We saw this influence on the 2012 High on Fire album De Vermis Mysteriis, which saw that band return to form after releasing the impressive but ultimately bloated Snakes for the Divine. Again, Ballou takes a band with a knack for dynamic composition and trims away the fat to produce a driving record that consistently moves forward rather than stagnating.
Sumac sounds better here than they did on The Deal as well. With power trios making insanely heavy music like this, it is a struggle to make sure that the instrumentals are forceful enough to push the message through while maintaining clarity necessary to appreciate the albums technicality. While Aaron Turner’s low-gain approach to guitar tone helps this, the bass helps fill in the low-end more efficiently on What One Becomes, adding the grit to bolster the album’s more intense moments without muddying up the mix.
It may be more valuable to discuss What Ones Becomes from a conceptual perspective, treating it as a series of movements in a cohesive whole rather than breaking it down one track at a time. It is a weighty listen accompanied by equally weighty lyrical subject matter. From album opener “Image of Control,” to the climactic passages of “Clutch of Oblivion,” and “Blackout,” little respite can be found amongst the gloom.
“Steady eyes belie the fear/Small hollow words, clatter to the ground/Broken/Ruin has come, not fire/Or in ashen rain/Only in turgid silence.” Indeed, the intensely personal nature of the lyrics suggests a significant amount of introspection by Turner, as he conveys the essence of how others might perceive and interpret the outward manifestations of personal anxiety. There are brief moments of release to be found, with the back-end of the 17-minute “Blackout” serving up a surprisingly melodic motif that functions as a segue into the final movement, “Will to Reach.” Resisting the urge to get overly analytical, suffice to say the lyrics take a shift to the distinctly hopeful during the album’s closing moments: “Behind the mask/Something small fiercely gleams/All that’s needed to claim the light/Is the will to reach.”
While this record is very impressive both sonically and compositionally, it is an extreme exercise in dissonance and tension-building. Undoubtedly, this makes the album hard to access through casual listens. The variety of influences and multiple digressions into experimental territory make the music hard to categorize for those who are not familiar with the band’s objectives. The unity of the performers which The Deal introduced becomes more fully realized on What One Becomes, cementing the decision of Turner and his colleagues to carry on with Sumac as an important project. If you are like me, and eagerly await each release that comes from Turner’s vast catalog of musical endeavors, then What One Becomes is effectively another must-listen that solidifies their place as a relevant band worthy of your time.