Album Of The Week: Inter Arma Sulphur English
The dudes who make metal — even the most searing, scorching, planet-swallowing metal — are just dudes. (And women.) They are not mythic overlords, kings of the mysterious lurching wastelands of the imagination. They are human beings. They own cars and pets and hoodies. A lot of them have day jobs.
Bill Bumgardner was just a dude. Bumgardner played drums in the Chicago metal bands Indian and Lord Mantis, and he and I used to share a backyard. Our Ukrainian Village apartments were on the same corner, and we had the same landlord. I didn’t really know him, didn’t talk to him too much. We only shared that backyard for maybe six months, and they were the six months when I’d first become a father, so I wasn’t too social in general. (My family moved out of that apartment really quickly when a bullet came through our window on a Monday night, while we were watching American Idol a few feet away.)
There was a little firepit outside, and Bumgardner and his girlfriend would spend a lot of nights out there, talking quietly to each other. My brother lived upstairs from Bumgardner, and he’d apparently get pissed off when my brother would play catch with his dog indoors; it was a whole thing. I remember being slightly taken by the idea that this guy who conjured thunderous sounds would be annoyed at too much dog-noise coming through his ceiling. But Bumgardner wasn’t a noise-conjurer; he was a dude. Sometimes he bartended in Wicker Park. He seemed intense and quiet but also fundamentally pleasant. In October of 2016, Bumgardner died by suicide. He was 35. I didn’t even know he’d died until I heard “Bumgardner,” the first song on the new Inter Arma album.
“Bumgardner” is a short, heavy instrumental, an ominous foretelling of things to come. It opens with guitar feedback, and with crashing drum-hits that sound like thunder in the distance. It lurches into gear slowly, these monstrous detuned riff-noises, and then we hear demonic howling and rolls of double-bass. Then everything dissolves into noise, and then it ends. If you didn’t see Bumgardner’s name in the Sulphur English album credits — the album is dedicated to Bumgardner and to the former Bell Witch drummer Adrian Guerra, who also died in 2016 — you might not have any idea that “Bumgardner” is anything other than an epic album intro. But it is. It’s dudes processing the death of a friend, and doing it in their own way.
I don’t know any of the dudes in Inter Arma; I have not, to the best of my knowledge, shared any backyards with any of them. And yet they are presumably all just dudes, too. Inter Arma come from Richmond, and they’ve been making vast and overwhelming music for about a decade now. Unlike a lot of metal bands, Inter Arma don’t pledge allegiance to any particular subgenre. There’s doom in their sound, but there’s death metal and psychedelia and ’90s noise-rock, too. For four albums now, they’ve made music that sometimes stares into the abyss and sometimes embodies that abyss. Inter Arma let their songs build with slow, heavy certainty, and they’re never afraid to break through the 10-minute mark when it makes sense. Their songs feel monolithic and eternal, but those same songs are capable of vast dynamic range. A moment of fluttery, starry-eyed beauty will slowly, logically give way to a moment of sinew-shredding brutality. It’s a grand, majestic sound, one that seems capable of containing entire universes. And yet the dudes making this sound are just dudes.
Sulphur English, Inter Arma’s fourth album, might be their heaviest. This makes sense. The dudes in Inter Arma are dealing with the same things as so many of the rest of us: the loss of friends, depression, the persistent obscenity of Donald Trump’s presidency. These are near-universal issues. Inter Arma communicate these issues in grand, mythic terms because they’re a grand, mythic band. So Mike Paparo — the band’s singer, lyricist, and occasional percussionist — never mentions Trump by name. Instead, he’s “the charlatan slinking amongst the pallid colonnades,” his “tongue adrip in revolting ecstasy.” A person’s struggle to maintain a life of meaning, to keep from getting mired in everyday bullshit, looks something like this: “I will break free from captivity / I will weather the storm / I will shake free from detritus / I will harness the wild flame.” Certain lines could just be about the drudgery of low-budget touring, but they come off like apocalyptic Cormac McCarthy prose: “As darkness grips this wayward land / Scant flickers of transient light frolic in the distance / A sure sign of some dreary town.”
Sulphur English comes three years after Inter Arma’s last album Paradise Gallows, which was probably their most melodic work. Sulphur English is not that. It’s dense and raw and heavy. Most of the time, Paparo’s voice is a near-inhuman rasp-growl. The heaviest moments have the merciless clangor of the best death metal. But even at its most claustrophobic and desperate, Sulphur English reaches out to the stars. “Howling Lands” grows from a brutalist crunch-stomp into a tribal, militaristic drum-symphony. “Citadel” is as bleak and ferocious as ’90s black metal, but there’s a triumphant sense of melody underneath all its feverish scratch-roars. Over 12 minutes, “The Atavist’s Meridian” moves from sludgy thunder-swirl to firelit folk-song incantation. “Blood On The Lupines” has long stretches of ominous blues-ambience, total goose-bump music that reminds me of Neurosis — not Neurosis’ records, exactly, but of how it feels to be at a Neurosis show.
As a band, Inter Arma clearly know what they fuck they’re doing. Drummer T.J. Childers plays with terrifying intensity but also with the kind of rhythmic playfulness that lets you know he listens to jazz. Guitarists Trey Dalton and Steven Russell are more concerned with creating atmosphere than with showing off, but they know how to launch into blazing solos when the time is right. The band recorded Sulphur English with longtime producer Mikey Allred, who clearly knows how to make them sound enormous and who also plays a lot of keyboards on the album. They’ve taken the task of making this music seriously, and their craftsmanship is on full display. But if you’re listening to Sulphur English loud enough — if you’re fully willing to give into it — then it becomes a full mental and emotional experience. It sweeps you away. At least until you remind yourself that the dudes making this are just dudes, that they’re dealing with the same things you are, and maybe even that they knew the same people you knew.
Sulphur English is out 4/12 on Relapse.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Anderson .Paak’s quick-turnaround sun-soul meditation Ventura.
• The Chemical Brothers’ twisty, energetic dance odyssey No Geography.
• Emily Reo’s layered bedroom-pop shimmer Only You Can See It.
• Fontaines D.C.’s skronky postpunk word-spew Dogrel.
• Bibio’s blissful quasi-folk sparkle Ribbons.
• Bruce Hornsby’s mellow, zoned-out, Bon Iver-assisted Absolute Zero.
• Social Experiment side project Intellexual’s self-titled debut.
• Damien Jurado’s thoughtful, ruminative In The Shape Of A Storm.
• Big Business’ burly, thunderous return fuzz-rock return The Beast You Are.
• Sia/Diplo/Labrinth trio LSD’s self-titled debut.
• Bars Of Gold’s experimental punker SHELTERS.
• Lowly’s itchy art-popper Hifalutin.
• PJ Harvey’s score for the stage play All About Eve.
• Broken Social Scene’s Let’s Try The After – Vol. 2.
• BTS’ Map Of The Soul: Persona EP.
• Renata Zeiguer’s Faraway Business EP.