SUMAC is Nick Yacyshyn (Baptists) on drums, Brian Cook (Russian Circles, ex-Botch) on bass, and Aaron Turner (Old Man Gloom, ex-Isis) on guitar and vocals; three musicians with impressive resumes and who seem perfectly suited for this band, to the point where its very alchemy would dissolve if any one of them was swapped out for someone else. SUMAC may have begun as Turner's singular vision, but the two albums to date, The Deal (2015) and What One Becomes, proclaim a brilliant command of atmosphere, mood, and negative space that arguably could only have emerged from the sonic collision of these three specific players. Each contributes something irreplaceable to the band's dynamism.
Like its predecessor, What One Becomes is an exhilirating, no-nonsense collision of opposing forces: darkness and light; catastrophe and grace; creation and destruction. Nowhere is this more evident than on the album's colossal fourth track, Blackout, which swells and breaks across a landscape of sky-is-falling doom for 11 minutes, before errupting into a melodic expression of hope for its 6-minute coda.
It's rare to find a metal album that is both fraught and introspective, but What One Becomes is what it sounds like. There is a gravity to this record that is often so forceful escape seems impossible. Its heavy, deliberate pace seems to consume the listener completely. The result is more an experience — tension and release made audible — than a mere collection of songs, and, for me, its unique and prodigious impact was unequaled by any other album in 2016.
For many months in 2015, I was convinced Crosss' Lo — my 10th ranked album — would end the year atop this list; so strong and abundant was the year's new music. Ultimately, though, the highest ranking could only go to Noyaux, one of two new recordings released by Benoit Pioulard this year (the other, Sonnet, also made this list).
Noyaux seemed to come out of nowhere — I wasn't expecting it. Nor could I have expected its visceral impact, which, for me, was profound. Noyaux offers ethereal, wordless soundscapes, in a vein similar to Olan Mill, but with slightly more dissonance. Possibly, this is the sound of the universe expanding. Or the sound of loss. Or the sound of the past unfolding. However you might interpret it, Noyaux is pure sonic, cinematic transport. It's a powerful and hauntingly beautiful experience that elicits emotions that are seldom felt, or that maybe were never before known. That is the purpose of all art, of course, and here Pioulard has done it, and with only four tracks and twenty five minutes, and without words.
The Fresh & Onlys, Bells of Paonia
White Fence is the music of Tim Presley, a California-based musician who played previously in the hardcore punk band The Nerve Agents and the more psychedelic leaning Darker My Love. As White Fence, Presley has been incredibly prolific, releasing six "studio" albums in the span of only four years (seven if you include his collaboration with Ty Segall, Hair; eight if you further include the amazing White Fence Live In San Francisco). The sound might be typecast as lo-fi, psychedelic, folk-rock, and/or garage-rock. (The word "studio" appears in quotes above because Presley reportedly self-recorded all but his latest album in his apartment.) A roll call of its influences might include, but certainly not be limited to: Syd Barrett's solo work, The Monkees, The Byrds, Count Five, The Electric Prunes, and Gram Parsons. I hear reminders, too, of many not-so-distant acts, like GoGoGo Airheart. White Fence might recall these and other similar acts, but it is not derivative. Presley takes his myriad influences and fuses them with his own distinct imagination and incredible songwriting ability to create something unique and unharnessed to any one sound or genre. White Fence is undeniably his.
For the Recently Found Innocent seems to build off the momentum of the wonderfully raucous full-band sound caught on Live in San Francisco, and that was hinted at with Hair and last year's Cyclops Reap. Segall mixed For the Recently..., and his exterior input complements these songs nicely and gives them added presence. It still sounds like music made by a man alone in a room, but the room feels larger and it's filled with new things for him to play with. The result is Presley's most fully-dressed album to date, but one that, thankfully, doesn't distance itself from the early sparse, lo-fi offerings that introduced White Fence.
Deafheaven, Dream House
Sometime in the Spring of 2013 an image appeared on the Instagram feed of the independent record label Deathwish. The image was beautifully sparse, with only a single word — SUNBATHER — spelled out across three rows of text in elegant, minimal type against a soft orange-pinkish background. Whole stems, crossbars, and shoulders of letters seemed to disappear completely into the soft tones behind them. I assumed it was an album cover though it didn't look like any album cover I had ever seen. I was mesmerized. Further reading revealed it was the cover art (designed by Nick Steinhardt of Touché Amoré) of the forthcoming album by the band Deafheaven from San Francisco. Somehow the band had eluded me to that point, but they now had my attention.
When Sunbather was officially released, on June 11, 2013, I listened to it as soon as I awoke (I somehow mustered the willpower to avoid all prior leaks). I was immediately consumed by the opening track Dream House, with its cascading wash of guitars, frantic drums, and the tense, controlled screams of vocalist George Clarke. This was something incredible. Its formula — epic, genre-crossing crescendos of frantic, moody aggression, paced by impenetrable blast beats, suddenly braking to swells of disarmingly pretty guitar interludes — is replicated across Sunbather's duration. The result is an album of beautiful ferocious melody — at times blistering and discordant, otherwise tranquil and contemplative. It's an album with great emotional resonance equal parts devastating, haunting and lovely — the sum of which delivers a visceral impact that is immediate and relentless. It's the kind of album I always hope to discover, and that broadens my perception of what music is capable of in sound and vision.