As each summer approaches so spins the hoofed triskelion of anxiety within my mind as the fires will inevitably begin. Five years ago it’d been unheard of beyond a mild heat wave in the pacific northwest here and there and yet these last four years a profoundly affecting suffocation claws at all vent and windows no matter what part of the west coast of the United States I scurry toward. In the San Fernando valley I found myself surrounded by eruptions, mistakes of the careless leading to freeway blockages and inferno visible from the mouth of the valley. It’d roam over hills invisible but for billowing smoke and hallucinatory waves of heat ripping over the desert. Here in the Puget Sound I cannot escape the smoke, nor could a retreat to the heart of Oregon save me from choking on the fumes of eradicated forests by the flames of our seeming deforested apocalypse. It begins to resemble an armageddon too slow for the idiotic to witness but too fast to illicit any change upon. We must suffocate as the very life-givers, these wooden ancients around us burst into spraying pillars of death. I cough as I wake and I cough as I lay to sleep for months every year, hacking away helplessly at the creeping death’s curse as it settles into my flesh. There is no greater fear a man should carry than the destruction of his environment. As liberating and romantic as it might seem to suffer for the rest of ones existence, passing on greater suffering to the next generation birthed only seems to curve the edges of the creepily smiling corrupted generations that surround me. They delight in suffering that isn’t their own, yet. When Richmond, Virginia based progressive blackened sludge/death doom post-metal thunder gods Inter Arma raise their arms to the sky and proclaim they are creating portraits of humanity through music I can only fall to the floor in resignation that this surreal death machine is almost inhuman in how precisely they strike upon intended target.
Each time I try to stand up I feel the old knots, I’d tied myself, tighten along the rope around my neck. Those unwilling limitations hold me in a lurching, painful place where anhedonist thought and surrealistic madness are a willing respite from the din of failures. As such, only the darkest music will do and too often the zeitgeist of modern sludge metal is half-assed, feigned torture, and blandly stoned idiocy that’ll incorporate whatever artsy trend without taste or insight. It is a true morass with a few earnest gems spiking the punch we celebrate at the end of every year. I choke upon this dissatisfaction the same as I do the ashen air of the Puget Sound in summertime because sludge first hit me a couple decades ago and I’ve yet to be sated chasing old sludge dragons. Thou is a defiance and a deserved slap in the mouth, Dark Buddha Rising is a seething meditation with grotesque insight, Unearthly Trance is a vitriol that scathes and scars the ‘self’ into death, but I do not yet understand how it is Inter Arma that are the very dying spirit of humanity, our death and the journey towards apocalypse combined. There has already been a maniacal, brooding extreme metal punch rising in their compositions since ‘The Cavern’ (2014) but here on ‘Sulphur English’ it becomes alarming that they now encroach upon sub-genre territory with the intentions of scorched earth.
The hair-raising sludge n’ doom antics of ‘Sundown’ (2010) were a beautiful rendering of blackened and progressive touches upon pure sludge rather than the gaudy post-metal that’d been expected at the time. In this sense Inter Arma and Tombs were perhaps two of the most righteous and ‘forward-thinking’ among their peers if only for the sake of new rhythms. If you’d heard ‘Destroyer’ (2012) EP and thought there was a gnarly lick of Mastodon-esque scuzz stinking up their already inconsistent taste level… Well, you might be as much of a snob about modern sludge as I am but most would eventually see these releases as formative in every sense. It was the album that’d follow the emergence and debut of black metal side-project Bastard Sapling, ‘Sky Burial’ (2013), that saw Inter Arma spread their LSD-expanded tongues to the ends of several vital spectra and there it seemed atmospheric sludge metal (post-metal to some) had a savior and an innovator. Their style hasn’t been entirely definable since but the expansive and inclusive vision of their music is consistently enormous and increasingly harrowing with each release. ‘Sky Burial’ was certainly the paradigm shift but I was not personally a fan of the band until I’d reached the second half of ‘The Cavern’ (2014). This was maybe the closest any modern sludge band could hope to get to a transcendental experience such as ‘A Sun That Never Sets’ from Neurosis, at least until ‘Paradise Gallows’ (2016) appeared to position itself as a truly extreme metal force. This was incredible as an emerging fan at the time because I’d expected this sort of band to soften over time but it was a hard, propulsive and completely satisfying experience. Nail me to that cross, happily.
What Inter Arma first captured on ‘Paradise Gallows’ does carry through to much of ‘Sulphur English’ (especially “Citadel”) though it isn’t at all the same record. The main shared thread that perked my ears was their vision of sludge metal with connection to ‘Gateways to Annihilation’ (see: “Nothing is Not” or, more clearly “Where the Slime Live”) death metal intensity from Morbid Angel that saw a death/doom lurch and intensity applied to their psychotropic drum circle’d atmospheric sludge metal ethos. In tandem with that doomed death pulse there was slight influence from the dissonant breakthroughs within black metal at the time, which was a wondrous departure from the echoes of hipster/post-black sentience in earlier works, and this intensifies with ‘Sulphur English’. It doesn’t stop there, though, as it would seem Inter Arma are no less capable of uplifting the very fabric of tribalistic atmospheric sludge metal with the martial neofolk-meets-Neurosis highlight that is “Howling Lands”. There was a sea of suffocating, dissonant, groaning brutality to soak up within ‘Paradise Gallows’ yet somehow ‘Sulphur English’ feels entirely more expansive, serious, bleaker, and (most importantly) more varied by a wide margin. It is a miserable driver for the mind but there is an ecstatic hit of endorphins that comes with how sensationally heavy Inter Arma continue to be.
At face value it’d be plain to see the old ‘next album’ ethos of going softer with the soft stuff and harder with the hard stuff applied to ‘Sulphur English’ but if anything they’ve married those pieces more effectively while focusing on grand atmospheric values. Within that atmosphere lies palpable feeling, a sort of music most heavy music fans won’t be able to avoid being moved by in some way whether it conjures surreal visions, anxiety, frustration, or some greater inner peace it should illicit some kind of reaction. This becomes valuable for me as a daily extreme metal listener who is often numb to rehashed ideas and tactless brutality. In some sense the effect that I get from ‘Sulphur English’, paired with its ~70 minute length, began to resemble my habits with extreme doom a la funeral death/doom and in placing this piece in that field it actually fits very nicely next to a project like (recent) The Ruins of Beverast as much as it does The Body. I found myself only listening once at a time and avoiding the full listen on repeat because I felt the need to be entirely present for the first ten or so listens. It became exhausting at some point and I’d put it down for about five days before drafting my thoughts. With some time away from Inter Arma‘s latest I both saw its high value in every respect clashing with its destructive imagery. It is a hopeless, chaotic, ruinous and beautifully ominous set of songs that does so much without losing the plot that it feels a step above most extreme doom/sludge/etc. that I encounter on a daily basis. There is the suggestion of fine art and not mere ‘current’ gimmickry at hand here and in this sense it is the perfect ante-up from ‘Paradise Gallows’. Very high recommendation, especially for extreme death/doom metal fans. For preview I think the duo of “Citadel” and “The Howling Lands” is going to be tough to top this year for the references they conjure alone but the title track is equally fantastic and a true highlight alongside them.
A firestorm of visible anguish. 4.75/5.0
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