The sonic landscape of North America, and much of the world over, is sequestered into regional spheres of understanding and influence. A vast array of genres bubble up to the surface vying, genially and toxically, for the plethora of elements surrounding musical hegemony within and outside respective regions. Amidst the cordial natures and corrosiveness of many scenes, individuals from differing areas find ways to collaborate and push the sonic envelope beyond the lines that the popular masses ram into their faces like Black Sabbath doing cocaine during the production of Vol. 4 (1972). Sometimes these individuals are already giants that loom in the shadows and rip a hole in the understanding of sonic output: Brain Cook, Aaron Turner, Nick Yacyshyn, more commonly known collectively as SUMAC,are a group of such luminaries.
The trio that makes up SUMAC needs no introduction. All three members have left sizable footprints on the heavier realms of sonic offerings within their respective regions across North America. Since 2014, the minds of Cook, Turner, and Yacyshyn have created some of the most impressive offerings from the experimental recesses of doom and sludge over the past five years. What / One / Becomes(2016) is arguably a landmark album of the decade across all genres. The blend of unquestionably spectacular musicianship with deep existential inquiry about the human existence combine for a spellbinding sonic result. However, this is 2020, not 2016. A year drenched in existential dread, and it should come as no surprise that SUMAC released their fourth studio album, and third with Thrill Jockey, this past October entitled May You Be Held(2020).
Honestly, everyone deserves to be held with love and care due to the societal chaos that has ensued from the COVID-19 pandemic. However, SUMAC caresses the temporal experience in a way that is uncompromisingly raw. May You Be Held is a gargantuan record that exudes spiritual moments and experimental prowess that would make John Coltrane and Rasheed Ali proud. The stirring and foreboding opening of “A Prayer For Your Path” spills into the searing eponymous track. After roughly six minutes of impressive modal passages, and moderate metric manipulations, SUMAC plunges headlong into a soundscape that can best described as the sonic equivalent of punching a mirror REALLY hard, screaming at the broken image, and coming to terms with the damaging experience by picking glass out of flesh — brutal, unyielding, tumultuous, fractured. The sludge covered pulse that closes “May You Be Held” with splintered guitar work darting around like lightning bolts of sound shakes the ears and pours wave after wave of sound whirling beneath the blistering vocals of Turner during “The Iron Chair.”
SUMAC’s modus operandi since their inception has never been to whitewash reality. Cook, Turner, and Yacyshyn have paved a path of unfettered sonic reality. The mind yearns for the arms of compassion and care, but the arms are not always soft and inviting. May You Be Held does not have the hands of what we see behind rose colored glasses. It has the hands of what truly is, worn by the test of time and experience.
It is painful. It is beautiful. It is all-consuming. It is real.
Contributor’s note: Bearing in mind that SUMAC released this particular album in late October 2020, the trio also released the single “Two Beasts” via Sub Pop in the twilight of this chaotic year. It is an outstanding addition to the unparalleled oeuvre of SUMAC’s discography.
May You Be Held is out now via Thrill Jockey Records and can be ordered here.
Words: Garrett A. Tanner