Virginians Inter Arma aren’t an act to sit still. Since their formation thirteen years ago, they have carved out a niche born of a fierce individualism, and built upon a groundswell of respect for their innovative sound and their savage live performances. While many bands in fringe music are content to approach influences as a simple exercise in mathematics, with two combined influences equalling a sonic identity, Inter Arma approach with no such constraints; with such a breadth of inspiration it is impossible to pigeonhole, resistant to any comparison.
Their fourth full-length, Sulphur English, is somewhat of a return to their roots. While 2016’s Paradise Gallows was a spiralling, chromatic display of a band fully extending their wings and embracing a broader landscape, Sulphur English acts as a reigning-in of the more esoteric influences in favour of a more raw, primal sound. But make no mistake, the flair for diversity is still woven through the album like an armature. Opener ‘Bumgardner’ instantly wrong-foots with unsettling feedback and distant, jarring keys, swelling into lumbering chords and thudding kicks, awash with cymbal splash before fading out into noise.
‘A Waxen Sea’ churns with jagged guitars backed by a broken drum groove, a predatory gait lurching through uplands of black metal influence. Drums pulse like a jugular, Mike Paparo dredging sunken depths with his guttural growls. Opening out into a syrupy groove topped with buzzing guitars, chaotic layers stack in constant tidal shifts before reprising the main riff. ‘Citadel’ is more immediate, a stomping stop-start riff, clanging cymbals working as an anchor as soaring tremolo guitars take flight. It’s infectiously groovy, stuttering into a blazing guitar freak out.
‘Howling Lands’ heaves with relentless tribal drumming (something of a speciality for sticksman T.J. Childers), joined by growling bass and rising feedback. The interplay between solid, unstoppable rhythmic groove and ethereal, distant guitar melody is classic Inter Arma fare. ‘Stillness’ is a contender for best track on the album; from mellow beginnings and deep crooned vocals carrying neofolk influence and a deceptive, meditative calm it plods into soaring guitars, exploding into ascending chords, triumphantly rising until the end. ‘Observance Of The Path’ acts as a shimmering, ethereal synth caesura.
‘The Atavists Meridian’ flexes with restless, almost jazz drum spasms, frantic snare rolls ushering in an undulating, chaotic groove. Constantly moving organically through punishing riffs, whining guitars, it opens out into lush, clean layering before building and breaking tension yet again, closing breathlessly. ‘Blood On The Lupines’ drips with lush, soft synths and dour vocals, reverb drenched guitar and a smooth, blues-like overlay building to expand infinitely before relaxing and softening. The title-track comes down with the finality of a sledgehammer; tumbling through grinding grooves and frantic cymbal work, direct riffs driving through flourishes of black metal inspired tremolo and blastbeats, mutating into huge, ringing doom chords and stabbing guitars before a descent that fades achingly slowly.
This refining of their alchemical make up serves Inter Arma well. While the diversity, experimentation and dynamics that have set the band apart from their peers are all still found in spades on Sulphur English, there’s a sense of a whittling down, of letting their mastery of primal groove and crushing riff carry the day. Another stone on the cairn, cementing Inter Arma in place as one of the most vital acts in heavy music.
Sulphur English is out now on Relapse. Purchase here.
Words: Jay Hampshire