May You Be Held, may you be heard
An album four years in the making, May You Be Held (2020) marks yet another high point for the relatively new post-sludge power trio Sumac, wrapping unforeseen stylistic fusions with a bow made of production sheen and artistic integrity. Those familiar with the band’s origins will surely acknowledge the impressive discography under the belts of each respective member. Fronted by the guitarist-vocalist Aaron Turner (ISIS, Old Man Gloom), and held down by drummer Nick Yacyshyn (Baptists, Genghis Tron) and bassist Brian Cook (Russian Circles, These Arms Are Snakes, Botch), it is almost impossible to not want to label Sumac as a contemporary post-metal supergroup.
Following the incredibly atmospheric and equally heavy Love In Shadow (2018), May You Be Held arrives at seemingly the perfect time. As the second half of 2020 is afflicted by the most somber and bittersweet of seasons, so too is the album, as it complements the dread and lackluster qualities of modern life. Opening up with the introductory ambient/post-rock section “A Prayer for Your Path,” Sumac outline their mission statement the second Aaron Turner’s hoarse, raspy vocals cut through the cloud of guitar feedback and atmosphere like a fin in still water, fading away until the opening chugs of the lengthy epic that follows.
The extravagant and emotionally draining title track “May You Be Held” comes in at just a few seconds short from a full 20 minutes, nothing unfamiliar to Sumac and post-metal/rock fans alike. Despite lengthy songs being well known as obvious cliches for ’70s prog bands and post-rock outfits alike, Sumac manage to breeze through the epic without being pigeonholed into tempo changes and drawn-out droning/ambient sections (albeit there are some exceptions). As the track progresses from the scratchy, Big Black-sounding guitar riff that starts it, the band showcase their opulent yet extremely tight and syncopated riffing before a noise pedal drone à la The Mars Volta enters for a handful of minutes. Delving into the second half of the track, a descending, chugging riff drives the song like a vintage Pontiac Firebird. Sumac get back into their sludge and groove roots with a verse undeniably susceptible to head-banging and stank face alike before fading into yet another atmospheric conclusion.
Sandwiched in between the two longest songs, the single “The Iron Chair” builds around dynamics and cues that surround the horrific shrieking feedback and noise that define it. However, the song’s length does pay somewhat of a toll, as there are only really a handful of sections (alternating between drum-less post-rock soundscapes and actual build-ups and riffs). Nonetheless, the vocals are stellar and tap into Joe Duplantier (Gojira) territory, as Sumac make some of the noisiest and most headache-inducing rock sections ever.
The second longest song “Consumed,” whose duration runs just under a full 17 minutes, breaks new ground, especially for Sumac. The droning synth/guitar (Leaves Turn Inside You, anyone?) stagger on patiently until a particularly exceptional drum groove and guitar chugging riff break into the main section, highlighted by the addition of distorted bass guitar. One will soon find that “Consumed” is easily the best track of the record based on the incredible fluidity and virtuosity showcased by each member near the end of the track, as well as their ability to write harrowing and emotionally compelling sections without losing the edge and intensity of the music.
Of course, ending the record is the entirely drum-less (save for a few reverberated cymbal and percussion speckles) “Laughter and Silence,” which wraps up relatively nicely for a nine-minute concluding soundscape. Similar to slowcore-era Earth, the track stretches through a heavy bass drone and shimmering overdubbed pads, supporting an equally melodic and atonal guitar lead, before withering away into white noise.
An afterthought of May You Be Held is that the overall dreariness and unsettling nature leaves the listener no better off than from beforehand. Much like an A24 film, there are no hints, not even from the title, about what the overall message is or should be, but there’s no real need to know. The quaint title and visually-appealing artwork are the bait, and the depressing yet heavy-hitting music is the fishing line that drags people through dark, murky water to their demise.