Reviewed: May 2019
Released: 2019, Relapse Records
Reviewer: Peter Atkinson
Richmond, Va.-based Inter Arma have carved out a nice little corner for themselves in the underground for their potent stew of death/black metal ferocity, imposing doom/sludge heft and desolate dynamics. There are few bands that work these extremes together like them – Ulcerate are about the only one that immediately comes to mind – much less with the guile and conviction they demonstrate.
Sulphur English is the quintet’s fourth album and brings with it more of a death metal flavor than 2016’s Paradise Gallows, which went all over the place. That said, Sulphur certainly is not short of variety in its own right – thankfully, given its occasionally oppressive 67-minute sprawl – it’s just more brutal more of the time as the band take a step or two back from conventionality and get darker, deeper and heavier.
It’s also nothing short of epic. Save for two brief instrumentals – the lurching opener “Bumgardner” that signals what’s to come and the soft piano piece “Observances of the Path” that provides a bridge to the album’s monumental back half – everything about Sulphur English is gigantic. The seven main tracks average about 9 minutes each and all are densely packed with thunderous, opaque riffs, lumber-and-surge rhythms and frontman Mike Paparo’s unnerving low-end growls and shrieks.
“A Waxen Sea” and “Citadel” get things off to a roiling start, jockeying back and forth between furious Morbid Angel/Mayhem-like bursts and a determined doom/psych plod that recalls Neurosis, with drummer T.J. Childers ably guiding things along. It no doubt helps that he is Inter Arma’s main songwriter, but his combination of muscle and agility behind the kit lays a solid foundation for his bandmates to work around.
“Howling Lands” is another perfect example, as the music swirls eerily about his martial, ritualistic back beat, creating an almost hypnotic effect accented by Paparo’s chanted delivery. “Stillness” maintains the ritualized air but makes a dramatic about face in the delivery with its relative minimalism and achingly slow build. Acoustic and slide guitar strains, organ washes and Paparo’s haunting cleans carry the tune much of the way.
The three-headed monster that serves as the second half of the album makes for a truly grand, albeit expansive, denouement, as I noted above. The 12-plus minute “The Atavist’s Meridian” offers plenty of black metal tinges, as Paparo’s growl morphs into screeches, howls and ominous spoken word. “Blood On The Lupines” carries the grim tone forward with its sparse instrumentation and distant vocals eventually giving way to another wave of sludge that smothers all as it inches its way forward.
The title track circles back to the whipsaw blast-and-creep of “A Waxen Sea” and “Citadel,” and brings things to an emphatic close over its 12 minutes of tumult – even though it actually fades out at the end. But by then, the damage has been done, so it hardly matters.
Sulphur English is certainly a lot to take in all at once. Though “Observances” neatly bisects the album and provides a logical spot for a rest break, it is worth investing the time to take the entire journey. There is certainly enough metal extremity here to keep things moving for those with little patience or short attention spans. And though it sometimes can make for uneasy listening, Inter Arma have crafted something truly captivating and utterly unique here that deserves the full-spectrum treatment.