Album: Sumerlands (2016)
Genre: traditional heavy metal
Where to buy: Bandcamp
From the opening bars of Sumerlands’s self-titled 2016 release, I thought I was listening to a lost Van Halen album. A few bars later they evoke the best of Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden. This is classic heavy metal that doesn’t feel old at all. The riffs are addicting and I found myself headbanging along from the first track through the last. This is a shorter album with short songs, just over 32 minutes with no song longer than five minutes, but there is so much heaviness and great songwriting packed into this half hour that you get the sense the band is trying to put only its best foot forward. Here, they succeed admirably.
Sumerlands opens strongly with the anthemic “Seventh Seal,” which features a fantastic layering of riffs, articifial harmonics, chorused vocals, and power metal lyrics (“Rivers of blood, oceans now flood / Upon the planet beseiged!”). The band uses this formula to great effect throughout these tracks, and though the minimal use of guitar solos might seem odd, the main riffs of most of the songs feature enough noodling that I don’t miss solos at all. The riffs themselves seem like an absolute blast to play, with the requisite palm-muted gallops on the low E colored with great double stop voicings and fills. The energy of the first track doesn’t let up, such that even the album’s ballad, “Haunted Forever,” quickly gives way to a thundering riff backed by equally pounding drums and bass. There are quick-tempoed fight songs, dramatic and macabre lyrics, memorable and rousing melodies buffeted by unrelenting heaviness in the rhythm section, and, for me, an irresistable urge to headbang.
The similarity of the vocals-guitar layering to Sabbath is strong, but not so strong that Sumerlands aren’t doing their own thing. Singer Phil Swanson ties his melodies to the guitars often, just as Sabbath does, and it’s noticeable throughout the album. The aforementioned “Haunted Forever” and “Lost My Mind” are good examples of this. That said, Swanson uses his chest voice more frequently than Ozzy, and only jumps to his head voice on a few tracks. Occasionally he sounds like Vincent Price taking particular glee in indulging in morbidity. His delivery is great fun and really works for these songs.
The final track is an instrumental, named after the band (and album, I suppose). This is the only instrumental on this release, and closes the album with a clean guitar melody that sounds like Metallica’s more contemplative clean riffs, bookended by ambient droning. It’s unlike anything else on this album but does as good a job at evoking a mood as the rest of the tracks, albiet a different mood.
All told, Sumerlands is one of my favorite albums I’ve reviewed. It’s extremely tight and well-produced, features excellent songwriting, and calls to mind some of the best heavy metal of all time.