Review: Inter Arma “Sulphur English” [Relapse Records]

Review: Inter Arma “Sulphur English” [Relapse Records]

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While Inter Arma may not be the only band playing music as intrinsically heavy as this, their well-defined sound remains quite distinct. Their 2016 release Paradise Gallows was a masterpiece that jettisoned the Virginian five-piece into the upper echelons of demonstrative sludgebaked doom.

Follow up Sulphur English is no less traumatic a listen, with the distinctive Inter Arma aroma released through the first few shuddering blows of the brief but intro “Bumgardner”. The song title incidentally is a reference to the recently departed Bill Bumgardner of Lord Mantis and Indian.

Also in the thoughts of Inter Arma is the late Adrian Guerra of acclaimed Seattle doom band Bell Witch and the recent loss of these two respected and admired friends captures something of the darkness that envelopes this album. Vocalist Mike Paparo has had internal battles of his own and at least some of the issues around these are channelled through the nine songs that make up Sulphur English.

Inter Arma have always been a band content to swim in waters so murky that very little life is likely to exist. It’s a sound perfected over their previous three albums and they have well and truly mastered the art of high octane intense riffage as evidenced on the likes of “A Waxen Sea” and “Citadel,” which has that familiar down-tuned pounding at the very start that Inter Arma have made their own.

Full acknowledgement is due to drummer TJ Childers. Not only content with a propensity for blastbeat brutality coupled with sparser moments of anvil heavy slams, the Inter Arma sticks guru also shapes most of the sounds at work on this album.

On “Howling Lands” oppression levels soar uncomfortably high with the feral ferocity of death metal repackaged into a sustained doom-paced vista without losing a drop of the power or intensity.

The first real divergence in tone is at the start of “Stillness” in which Paparo’s softly spoken rhetoric helps create a ballad like ambiance, with a peacefulness not readily associated with the Richmond renegades. As the harmonies add further warmth, it’s refreshing to see Inter Arma for once drop their shield of ice to reveal an altogether less hostile side. These nine minutes make for some of the most powerful and poignant on the whole album, all the more gratifying for being unexpected.

A brief piano instrumental interlude then leads into more conventional Inter Arma territory in the disfigured shape of “The Atavist’s Meridian” in which darting riffs stab away restlessly during a frenetic opening. There is a more transcendental feel to the chimes that gather on “Blood on the Lupines” with Paparo initially confining his vocal contribution to dissonant monastic like drones. The mood jolts into something altogether more frightening at the halfway mark when the distressed cries suddenly take on a more palpable feel with the crescendo that stirs around it all consuming in its deathly sonic throes.

As ever, most of these songs don’t obey conventional easy to follow structures. A bit like watching an artist applying initial strokes of the brush to canvas, the full picture isn’t always readily available until the end, and even then the lines and contours are frequently blurred. Inter Arma don’t do smooth edges. Instead their colossal components jostle one another for superiority, the squabble occasionally making for an uncomfortable listen such as on the album’s closing torturous title track.

For fully immersive dark sounds Inter Arma are hard to surpass. Even occasional shards of light fail to shake off the undercurrent of gloom that sweeps across all that they do. Sulphur is renowned for its potent stench, hence the album title providing a fitting nameplate for this latest magnificent opus. Just take a deep breath first.

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