Richmond, Virginia’s kitchen-sink sludge metallers Inter Arma have been the beneficiaries of the kind of hype that can only lead to extreme metal nirvana or bitter, bitter disappointment. So with the first moments of their Relapse debut Sky Burial it’s such a pleasure to hear them live up to their push in a big way. Abandoning the hardcore swagger of their first record Sundown, ‘The Survival Fires’ heralds a bold shift for the band. Everything about it is on an epic scale, from the big-sky vistas conjured by that massive psychedelic guitar sound – courtesy of Bastard Sapling axe-grinders Trey Dalton and Steven Russell, plus bassist Joe Kerkes – to the ghostly reverb that envelops Mike Paparo’s soaring, searing growls, to the thunderous blackened roar of TJ Childers’ blastbeats. Breathtaking’s the word for it.
After 10 minutes of that, the acoustic break of ‘The Long Road Home (Iron Gates)’ is welcome relief, though it does go on for much longer than necessary – a concern heightened by the interminable meandering of the track it preambles. Four long minutes of intro go by before things get interesting again with some classic rock wild-abandon soloing, then at the seven-minute mark ‘The Long Road Home’ suddenly explodes with a furious, euphoric rush of blastbeats and thrashed strings, like Neil Young gone grindcore. It’s an unusual combination to be sure, blending grind with hard roots rock, but it works. And there’s something so other-worldly about Paparo’s treated screams amid that blizzard of hammered drums and guitar noise; for me it’s this quality that sets Inter Arma apart as a unique prospect, something really special.
If only the band themselves realised as much. The rot sets in early with third track ‘Destroyer’, which bogs down proceedings in a morass of one-dimensional blackened sludge doom that trundles on forever, killing all that momentum and wearing on the patience; ”sblood’ follows with more single-chord, single-tempo, drawn-out tedium which can’t be saved by some nifty polyrhythmic percussion. That it leads into ‘Westward’ without a break doesn’t help the latter, again built from a relatively simple riff repeated ad nauseam such that any subtleties are rendered inaudible to my already lost attention. It’s a shame as the band finally get their groove back some three minutes in – the fretwork even getting refreshingly mathy for a doom metal workout – but the track rolls right on past the point where stopping would have achieved the greatest impact.
‘Love Absolute’ is another acoustic interlude that does nothing much for four minutes, though to be fair the band at least make an attempt to change up the texture (there’s piano in there, and some nice background washes of sound). And the record closes on the 13-minute title track where those flourishes are fleshed out to remarkable effect. The six-stringers swoop and howl, somewhere between Americana twang and My Bloody Valentine ‘glide guitar’. The vocals are sung more clearly here, and there’s a stronger grasp of the tension and release that’s so lacking earlier. Like the sky burials of Tibetan Buddhist culture for which its named, the song reaches for the heavens, building ever higher on multiple layers, shifting tones and rhythms and textures, before decaying beautifully. It’s a tour de force that demonstrates the band at their finest, but it’s weakened by coming after so much uninspired bore-doom.
Sky Burial the album is ultimately a mixed blessing, a victim of lofty but unchecked ambitions. There’s a pretty great 40-minute record in here somewhere; more’s the pity Inter Arma didn’t find it.