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Speaking in Tongues: Inter Arma’s “Sulphur English”

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Anyone who’s seen Inter Arma live over the past few album cycles won’t be terribly surprised by Sulphur English. That is not to indicate the cliché that the album sounds more like their live set than they ever have in the studio before; the group is actually fairly adept at keeping the two just the right amount of proximal, with the live show having more of a raw punk/metal vibe you’d expect from road-dog Richmond, Virginia natives who bounced between there and D.C. in their early days, playing a range of punk and metal bills over time. Their studio work has just the right amount of polish to differentiate it enough from their live work, but we’ve always gotten a sense of where their next record might be going by the way they approach that new material live. The group’s pre-Sky Burial work was much more raw and sludgy than the relatively crisp and folky black/doom/post-metal record they delivered, a move presaged by their increasing sense of subtlety and dynamics on-stage beforehand. Likewise, the more they dived into the Neurosis comparisons before hitting the studio, the more The Cavern took shape; double likewise, the more their place as forerunners of truly heavy progressive music was pushed, the more Paradise Gallows took its triumphant and transcendent shape.

So, given this arc, it is no surprise that the increasingly fucking metal liveshow of the group while touring for Paradise Gallows might lead to a likewise heavy-as-fuck followup.

Indeed, it seems that the group has rediscovered their old 1990s Pantera and Morbid Angel records, lingering often somewhere between Domination-era Morbid Angel and the gnarly, seasick squeals of prime-era Dimebag Darrell. Thankfully, Inter Arma hasn’t lost their touch with the same kind of death-metal-driven murk that propelled their earliest pre-Relapse material, slipping back into that mode comfortably with a sense of post-death metal dynamics acquired from years of putting out the best post-metal inflected with every kind of extreme metal subgenre under the sun. Sulphur English feels comfortable with what the band proved for themselves: they are the extreme band to beat right now, the very brightest star, and with nothing left to prove in terms of both ambitions and ability, there is nothing left to do but make epic-scale sulphur-scented extreme metal.

This draws a comfortable comparison to Deafheaven, who followed a similar arc from Sunbather to New Bermuda to Ordinary Corrupt Human Love. One placed the band on the map as a group to watch, the next proved critics and snarky fans wrong about the limitations of the group, and the final was the group settling into themselves. But while Deafheaven’s comfort zone includes a tremendous amount of non-metal music (to the point where calling them a black metal group now feels too restrictive for the much broader vision they have laid out for themselves, newest single “Black Brick” notwithstanding), Inter Arma seemingly want only to be heavy. Their image of heaviness, certainly, is more nuanced than most; the comparison to Neurosis still stands, although now more abstract, focused more on how every sound Neurosis makes, be it King Crimson-inspired, country music, Swans, or Godflesh. Nuance exists, both in Neurosis and in Inter Arma, but it exists as a way to make much more vicious, specific, and masterfully touched extreme music.

Inter Arma are one of those rare transcendent bands that feels beyond the notion of influence. They are, of course, influenced by other artists, and with some strain it’s not terribly difficult to connect the dots. But even while their specific sound is not specifically novel, their execution of that sound makes you forget for its duration that these ideas have origin. Instead, the experience is much more pure and singular; it is easy as Sulphur English plays to lay back, close your eyes, and be immersed fully in the work, to think of no extra-textual components. Guitars and bass roar, but the mind does not imagine people sitting with guitars in laps at a studio laying tracks. Singing voices and growls and gurgles abound, but they do not call to mind a person sitting in front of a mic (save for haunting country-folk song “Stillness,” which sinks like a knife into the chest dead-center in the album). The only instrument that brings to mind the pure physical reality of playing an instrument are the drums, but even those evoke more the image of a primitivist drum circle around a huge bonfire somewhere on a mesa or a Virginia valley, Appalachians roaring up like blue teeth to the sky behind. The experience is cinematic and engrossing on Sulphur English, erasing a sense of authorship to leave only an inexplicable work.

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It would feel flippant to try to place Sulphur English in a ranking of their discography. Some groups work well with that model, but only because they have clusters of records that sound the same, aim the same direction, attempt the same thoughts, allowing us to rank them based on success for that overall mission. Inter Arma release records the way authors (thinking Cormac McCarthy specifically here) release novels, making each different in its overall aim so as to make direct ranked comparison seem crass. Paradise Gallows seemed sea-based, wracked with pain but producing a spirit that seemed to rejoice in its sickness and punishment, something that suffered but gave off a Satanic laugh as it died. Sky Burial felt windswept and desolate, like a quiet plain stained with imperial blood. The Cavern was a low-blow from a deep cave.

Sulphur English, then, is a doomed cowboy novel, broken bones and human scalps littering a dead town, the racial tension and sense of impending doom choking the American air in 2019 brought to life in moonlight and spur and the creak of hateful wood. There is a sense of something infernal, something supernatural, like Satan himself might rise cold out of a broiling fire.

Inter Arma have retained the macroscale structural elements and microscale cinematic touches that make their work stand so capably against the great peers in the world of doom, death, black, and post-metal that they are often compared to. This album skews slightly toward more explicitly heaviness than its predecessors, drawing more from death metal than ever before, but it still feels like a fitting partner to its companions in the discography. There are churning atonal chords and arpeggios placed next to gorgeous piano and country-folk, mid-paced death metal stomp and squeal next to tricksy proggy flourishes. Inter Arma is a group that seemingly can not only do everything but can do it well too. They’ve been discussed as maybe the best band going in extreme music since Sky Burial dropped; Sulphur English only adds credence to those claims.

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