Over the course of their previous three albums, Richmond, Virginia's INTER ARMA have already established themselves as one of the most caustic and entrancing musical forces in the entire metal genre. Their wicked stew consisting of blackened death metal, suffocating sludge, and haunting atmospherics was already impressive by the time of their previous release, 2016's "Paradise Gallows". INTER ARMA's presence on Relapse's roster is fitting, as their newest effort, "Sulphur English", is perhaps the most purely apocalyptic-sounding record since that label released "Through Silver In Blood", an album considered by many as the pinnacle of the long and impressive career of Bay Area greats NEUROSIS, twenty-three years ago this month. Time will tell if "Sulphur English" is as enduring as that seminal record, but in the immediate afterglow of its release, it is a stunning document of aural punishment.
After a haunting intro track—named in tribute to fallen musician Bill Bumgardner (INDIAN, LORD MANTIS)—consisting of harsh screeching noise, repetitive dirge riffs, and hypnotic tribal drumming from T.J. Childers, who maintains a strong balance between that sound and a black metal pummel throughout the record, the chaos properly begins with "A Waxen Sea". The most overtly metallic moments of "Sulphur English" occur here, as vocalist Mike Paparo spits out caustic death metal growls over a fast-paced blackened barrage from Childers. This is tempered by rumbling amplified bass lines from the now-departed-from-the-band Joe Kerkes and stuttering guitar riffs from the duo of Steven Russell and Trey Dalton. The result is a disorienting whirlwind that sets the tone for the rest of the album.
"Citadel" is another display in discordant riffs and guttural vocals, with Russell and Dalton steering their guitar shreds in a more angular direction that resembles sounds from a MESHUGGAH record. Paparo shifts his vocals from a death grunt to an echoing gothic howl on "Howling Lands", but the murky sludge present in the musicianship and another exercise in drumming hypnosis keep the haunting aura lurking ominously over the proceedings.
Acoustic guitar strumming, dark-Americana orchestration, and layered croons from Paparo give a more subdued vibe to the opening moments of "Stillness", but the slow burn over the next nine minutes leads to climax of apocalyptic doom. "The Atavist's Meridian" may be the shining moment of the record. Childers's drumming goes into a heavy prog rhythm for most of the duration, before everything comes crashing down in a bruising crescendo powered by hard jazz drum freak-outs, while Paparo's frantic howls sound like an alien force sucking everything in its center of gravity into the black hole. The title track finally wraps the album up in what may be the records most musically chaotic output.
If you are a NEUROSIS fan that isn't super appreciative of the moodier Americana elements that have integrated their later work, INTER ARMA's "Sulphur English" matches the apocalyptic sounds of that band's works of old, while enveloping it in a caustic black metal shroud and the aura of space exploration gone horrifyingly wrong.