Band: Inter Arma | Album: Sulphur English | Genre: Progressive metal, Sludge metal, Black metal | Year: 2019
From: Richmond, USA | Label: Relapse Records
For fans of: early Mastodon, Agalloch, Giant Squid
Inter Arma is among the most-talked-about bands in the realm of modern progressive metal (at least online). It’s not hard to see why. The band’s last few releases have been stellar, and their most recent album, 2016’s Paradise Gallows, was especially impressive in its scope and ambition. They’ve managed to effectively blend the pounding heaviness of doom and sludge metal with the speed and sharpness of black metal. I try not to set my hopes too high for high-profile releases like this, lest I be disappointed with a pretty good album.
Sulphur English continues a trend that was begun on Paradise Gallows. Their 2016 release was the first of theirs to feature clean vocals, and acoustic guitar was even given prominent placement at moments. Clean vocals are even more widespread on Sulphur English, and acoustic guitars continue to be given a large role in an increasing number of songs, offering a sharp contrast against the thundering, growling sludge riffs.
After the brief, ominous opening instrumental “Bumgardner”, Sulphur English erupts into a storm of guttural vocals, bone-rattling guitars, and thunderous drums on “A Waxen Sea”. The song “Citadel” plays like an encapsulation of Inter Arma’s most aggressive tendencies. There are plodding doom riffs that lurch along with abyssal weight; there’s technical shredding which almost borders on thrash metal at moments; and there are the soaring, twisting solos over deliberate rhythms.
“Howling Lands” is one of the more adventurous songs on the album. The instrumentation is minimal, consisting primarily of percussion with a rolling, tribal feel and sparse, squealing guitars. The stringed instruments in this song provide additional texture and allow the drums to be the lead instrument. “Stillness”, the next track, shows Inter Arma continuing their experimental patterns. This song opens with an extended acoustic movement accompanied by haunting vocals and a David Gilmour-inspired guitar solo.
The two longest songs, “The Atavist’s Meridian” and the title track, demonstrate the band’s ambition as songwriters. The structures are complex and nonlinear, and many of the riffs show impressive technical skill.
Despite all this praise, I do have some serious reservations about Sulphur English. The biggest is that I am not wild about the production. Sludge metal is supposed to be, well, sludgy. Thick and nasty. But this comes off more like mud than sludge. It lacks a certain auditory chunkiness. The distortion loses its impact rather quickly, and that can cause some of the extended instrumental sections to become trying and tedious. It’s a bit like aural oatmeal to me after a while.
The other issue is more a symptom of the limitations of a studio album. “Primordial Wound” is probably my least-favorite track off Paradise Gallows, utilizing a sluggish pace and austere riff. But when I saw them perform it live, I was blown away. There are a lot of moments like that on this album. I don’t doubt they’d be fantastic and impressive in a live setting, but they lack a certain oomph as studio recordings.
Sulphur English demonstrates some impressive evolution out of Inter Arma. I think they’re moving in a good direction, and I’m eager to hear what they put out next. But I do hope they give their production an adjustment and tighten up their songwriting.