In presentation of their second full-length album Midwest technical death metal abstractionists Sunless remain restlessly phrased, torn and spinning in a nigh meditative state of whirling transfixion for its duration. ‘Ylem‘ sees the Minneapolis-based trio still reliant on the enchanting yet disoriented free-flowing nature of dissonant extreme metal to showcase their ability to conduct profoundly graceful and impressively demanding performances which still appear mood-stricken, contemplative and/or vexed by the angular improbability of existence. The primordial ooze from which the matter of the known universe has arisen over the course of cosmological history is merely one point of meditation within — Just as ylem is distinct from the apeiron for the sake of being able to reference a relative timeline for the transmutation of said matter, so is ‘Ylem‘ itself subject to the decay that comes with temporality.

Order: Death metal. Family: Technical death metal. Genus: Gorguts, post-‘Obscura’. Species: Abstract, markedly dissonant, often solar-expressive predator. Subject is supernatural in origin, contemplative to the point of a wandering mind, rhythms are delivered with the nuance and playful gait of progressive rock yet mechanically achieved at pace enough to resemble the cold industry of early-2000’s technical death metal. Growls are meditations upon scenes presented in action, physical visualizations writ with determinedly minimal lyrics, edited to pure and distant perspective. See also: Ulcerate, Flourishing, and to a lesser degree Pyrrhon. It goes without saying that Sunless are manifesting on an impressive level here on ‘Ylem’, a well curated and highly proficient listening experience from an above-average specimen. Those of us who particularly love this skronk sector of death metal will appreciate their surreal shatter of traditional death metal forms by way of ‘Obscura’, lending their own evolutionary voice to forms which are categorized by seeming formlessness. We see the smoke, smell the combustion, and hear its rapid fire before the engine itself is revealed.

Sunless‘ approach to riffcraft has changed in terms of extending the length and complexity of their phrasing in development of each riff, weaving together dissonant run-on sentences which are readable as the current-gen spawn of the lauded atmospheric leanings of Ulcerate in particular. What mutation sets ‘Ylem’ apart from expectation is a moderate focus on more classically formed “prog-death” pieces, if we can extend “classic” as modifier to rare sub-genre music as far back as the mid-90’s and nearby as the late 2000’s. Varietal songcraft makes all the difference here compared to the band’s first demo and full-length. In re-examination of their discography I didn’t think much of Sunless‘ first demo (‘Demo 2016‘, 2016), it reads as a vertical sliced ideation of mid-to-fast paced dissonant death metal movement via stark and unglamorous atmosphere. A barbarian statement compared to the finesse of today, as the band builds around their debut, ‘Urraca‘ (2017), an overstated release notable for its persistent aggression and blissfully solar resplendence, fraying in an ordered yet vexing manner akin to the tunelessly climbing aspirations of post-metal. This wasn’t out of the ordinary for dissonant and atmospheric technical death metal then, and isn’t now, but the Ulcerate-esque aesthetic of that debut and its high-caliber guitar work would, and does still stand out. With this in mind I’d still argue ‘Ylem’ is far more convincing a spectacle and a more tuneful experience compared to its predecessor.

The greater sensation of ‘Ylem’ finds the very axons of the mind unraveling into a series of unpredictably spaced periods of glowing respite, a tumultuously loosened state slowly freed of supportive strapping which releases the proverbial astronaut body into nothingness with fair and extended warning. It is these slips of the harness which secures one’s place in the universe where the major action takes place and this is felt strongest on Side B as the psyche disperses somewhat — Yet the major reason to buy this album, to gawk at all the screwy space-brain riffing, lies in the light-tripping mastery of Side A. The tension for which Sunless are known sets opener “Spiraling into the Unfathomable” as a high bar for the rest of the experience to live up to, an alien conversation via laser cut riffs and brilliant use of eerie guitar effects that aims to visualize itself in a separate but equal states of pure vexation, cosmic horror and then machine-crushed out severity. These sorts of moods call for a richly resonant progressive death metal-attuned space afforded by a roof level ear toward the action, setting the drums as dominant to the extend of the room without creating a flat or too-distant thump. Less distance from the neck-level growling bass guitar tones and oft-chiming tech-death scrawl n’ spiraling guitar work means the listener is set in a stereo-equipped captain’s chair within view of the full cacophony of ‘Ylem’ and feeling each percussive hit. Bassist Mitch Schooler slings serious flab-string all over this record but stops short of a slap in most cases, providing virtuosic use of percussive but not interruptive texture. This frontal lobe-aimed sound design is most brilliantly realized during moments of pure action, broadly woven progressive metal pieces that are friction-lite much of the time (see: “Atramentous”) yet demand a state of mayhemic excitement to reach the transcendence on offer.

Ascended Forms” cuts right to an Gigan-worthy finger wriggling lead, a motif for what I’d consider the major cut from the album if you are interested in the brilliant progressive turn ‘Ylem’ will ultimately realize. The StarGazer-esque breakthrough in the middle of “The Unraveling of Arcane Past” helps to complete the greater modification upon our perception of the Sunless realm beyond tech-skulled dissonant death metal; It takes less than the sum of Side A for the paradigm to reveal itself, a leap forward within the bounds of iteration, within the bounds of niche, with an unleashed and inspired verve. One of many “they can do more, but this is incredible as is” moments of late, a thought which ties us directly into guitarist/vocalist Lucas Scott‘s recent work in death/thrash metal project Obsolete as we hit the ~2:30 minute mark on Side B opener “Flesh-Particle Amalgamation”, a hint of that prog-thrash mode can be found bleeding into the cleaner, clearer shaping of ‘Ylem’. Extreme metal’s legendary weak point, the 7th inning of the ~40 minute 8-song format, is subverted here as another highlight (and well-chosen early preview track) “Forgotten (Remnants of Life)“, one of the more aggressive pieces made memorable by its Voivodian flexing bridge. The running order of the final half of ‘Ylem’ flows well, almost to the point of blowing by, encouraging far too many repeated spins on my part.

Side A offers spectacular cataclysm, a pure pleasure listening experience, as the freshly verbose musical language Sunless have been chipping away at blooms into novel poetics, Side B is the exhaustion of those possibilities into ordered spaces as the band explores deeper extremes. The complete listening experience is polished enough to meet the high standards of current world class technical/progressive death metal yet challenging and earthen enough to inspire serious fealty among several generations of progressive death metal fandom; This should temper some, but not all, fear of dissonant death metal prominence in mind and rightfully stoke the interest of folks who appreciate everything from Suffering Hour to Ad Nauseam. The initial value judgment here requires some self-assurance that there is something to be gained from sitting and soaking within ‘Ylem’ several times until the brain can process such intense detail, the intent of that detail, and the brutally psychedelic spectacle of it all. There are yet enough clear standout pieces within said full listen that the initial period of the decoder’s vexation won’t last long. A very high recommendation.

Very high recommendation. (90/100)

Rating: 9 out of 10.
LABEL(S):Willowtip Records
RELEASE DATE:October 29th, 2021
BUY & LISTEN:Bandcamp
GENRE(S):Progressive Death Metal,
Technical Death Metal

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