Straight to the point: Sulphur English is the darkest and most brutal record that Inter Arma has made yet. It is also far less immediate than albums like Sky Burial and Paradise Gallows.
Immediacy is an interesting thing here because anyone that was already into the band will undoubtedly recognize their set pieces. Their previous works brought a mix of Yob’s evil side, Morbid Angel’s thuddy death metal, later Leviathan’s polluted, acrid black metal, and well, Pink Floyd. A dash of Neurosis here, a bit more prog there, etc, and you’ve got a diverse, deep sound. Another thing that defined those records: a total disregard for efficiency and brevity. Inter Arma is a band that likes to spread its wings both stylistically and across time, resulting in a couple albums that are each about 70 minutes in length.
On Sulphur English, Inter Arma maintains their disregard for efficiency and brevity (it’s still about 70 minutes) and combines it with the most malevolent music of their career, resulting in a record that is unapologetically draining. Gone are the extended jam sessions that acted as anchors for the listener, and Pink Floyd is basically only present in spirit now, not sound. This shift to further darkness will likely be as appealing to some listeners as it is a turnoff to others. But again, it doesn’t seem as if the band cares one lick about your comfort.
As stated, Sulphur English is largely made of the same materials as its predecessors. It doesn’t so much build new structures as it does open new doors hidden throughout the constructions of their past, and certain songs even follow familiar blueprints. “Howling Lands,” like “Destroyer” and “Summer Drones” before it, is the repetitive drone-y tune right before the midpoint that either builds suspense for the second half or unnecessarily extends the album, depending on your viewpoint. Does it drag at times? A little. Does it also make a really nice transition into the balladry of “Stillness”? Definitely.
Less directly emulative but still familiar are early tracks “A Waxen Sea” and “Citadel.” The former is a mix of gargantuan sludge, death growls, blasts, and long passages of Deathspell Omega-infused black metal, while the latter goes more down the stoner route but keeps the burly growls and even finds time for a weirdo, not un-Slayer-like guitar solo. Along with the aforementioned “Howling Lands,” they make up a first act that is undoubtedly quite great and extremely punishing, but also carries with it a feeling that something is being held back.
However, as “Stillness” takes listeners over the album’s halfway point, the record undergoes a change. (“Stillness,” by the way, is about the only time this album plays nice, harrowing though it still is.) Sulphur English teases crossing an event horizon for nearly half its length ‒ arguably longer than it should ‒ but once it crosses is a constant descent into deeper madness and despair.
It also digs into perhaps the best 30 minutes of music this band has yet put to tape, and that’s no lean compliment. Much of “The Atavist’s Meridian” is spend in a constant stacking or weaving of what initially appear to be the same layers, building a structure to a height that can never be reached because the foundation is constantly pulled out from under it. It’s an exhaustive and mesmerizing effect. (The drumming of T.J. Childers is monstrous here, as it is everywhere.) “Blood on the Lupines” is a slight parallel to the title track from Paradise Gallows in that it eases from the conventional brutality for a while, but it also strips away the hints of comfort and resolution. It is instead an arid expanse, a space in which to reflect on the surrounding horrors. And the closing title track runs the full gamut of every mean thing this band can throw at you: slippery, technical riffs straight out of the Dodecahedron playbook, Leviathan’s blasting horrors, passages of Neurosis dirges, dissonant whirlwinds, you name it. It’s an absolute monster of a finale.
Here’s an obvious point: this isn’t music that lends itself to the convenience of rapid judgment. My opinion has changed about the record a few times, and it’s likely to keep evolving as the secrets reveal themselves. Even for a pretty big fan, the lack of immediacy was a bit of a challenge. The band puts a ton of work into every meticulous detail of its music, and it takes several spins for those details to begin unraveling.
The learning curve for Sulphur English, then, is admittedly a tad steeper than that of past albums, but nothing here threatens the extremely high bar that Inter Arma has set for themselves. Parts of the record merely maintain that bar, sure, but others raise it, and often in unexpected ways. Some fans are likely going to miss all the smooth soloing and progressive rock expanse. Others will welcome the terror with open arms.
No matter your personal take, there’s no denying that this record is a churning nightmare.