Sumerlands Nourish a Love for Heavy Metal on “Dreamkiller” (Arthur Rizk Interview)
If there's a heavy metal record released this year that defines the state of modern heavy metal, it's the new one from Philly heroes Sumerlands. Relentlessly '80s to the point of obsession but optimistically gorgeous and written with a touch that can only come from the greatest of reverence for old rock and metal, Dreamkiller is a great tribute to both the capacity for quality in the modern scene as well as to heavy metal itself.
When Sumerlands' eponymous debut, came out on Relapse Records in 2016 it took the metal world by storm. With years between for a fanbase to build not only for Sumerlands but for the various members' other bands as well (see also: Eternal Champion, Innumerable Forms, legendary doom giants Pagan Altar, and more) it seems to be the perfect time for Sumerlands to dominate the world.
Dreamkiller is a culmination of a promise that Sumerlands started and lives up in every possible way. The riffs are sharper, the drums are as pounding as ever, the structures are insanely catchy, and new vocalist Brendan Radigan fills the massive shoes that Phil Swanson left with aplomb, though that’s perhaps not a shock given that Radigan has been fronting killer bands for years; readers might know him from his time in Magic Circle (RIP), Pagan Altar, Battle Ruins, Stone Dagger, Mind Eraser, or one of the other bands he's been in. Every second on Dreamkiller exudes confidence, a deep love for heavy metal, and a band whose musicianship towers above what most modern heavy metal can bring to the table.
This is in no way a repeat of Sumerlands' self-titled album. Fans of Sumerlands may find themselves missing Swanson's wildly theatrical vocal performance or the sheer melancholia evoked by its dreamy atmosphere, but Dreamkiller is still clearly the work of the same band and the energy and catchiness on songs like "Heavens Above" defy any possibility of calling it a step down. Every listen that I give to Dreamkiller finds new things to love about it; fans of true heavy metal and casual fans alike take heed, for this is heavy metal to die for.
Read below for an interview with Sumerlands' main songwriter, Arthur Rizk. For the unfamiliar, Arthur is not only the main songwriter in Sumerlands but is also a key member of modern heavy metal legends Eternal Champion, and one of the hottest producers in the genre, having worked with bands like Power Trip, Cirith Ungol, Cavalera Conspiracy, Tomb Mold, Xibalba, and many more. As a final note before getting into it, normally I cut out the intro to interviews and start with a question with the transcription, but the way this interview went it makes more sense to leave it in.
Arthur: How are you doing man?
Busy as shit! I know you know how that goes because you play in a billion fucking bands and also do all of the audio work.
Hey, busy is busy! That’s one thing that I’ve learned from doing multiple different jobs in the biz, there is no busy that feels easy.
When did you get started in "the biz"?
I really started recording in, like, 2011. 2011 was the first thing that I ever booked seriously with the first Power Trip record. Everything up to that point was me finding my footing in recording. Not too long after Power Trip is when Sumerlands started, probably the same year that the record came out. That’s when we started working on our first songs.
Speaking of that early stuff I remember reading in an interview that you played bass on the first Sumerlands record, but I have my lyric sheet here in front of me and you’re not credited on it for that instrument.
I guess it was a decision at the time kind of to make Sumerlands seem as far away as from a "project" as possible, because when you see that it’s two or three guys doing something people will put it in the category of just a little project or something. I wanted it to seem like a band, not the spawn of a producer. It was a conscious decision.
As a fan of music, does it turn you off at all when something is just one or two or three guys playing a bunch of different parts?
No, not really, but I don't know why, I think maybe it’s some kind of guilt that I feel that I don't put as much time into the bands as I do in my producing work, so I always wanted to not discount the band at all. Some people might see it that way, they think of a band and think of the gig, the concert, the whole band being there. With other stuff in metal I figured that’s where people would perceive it that way. Other music doesn’t really apply to that. Like, I was doing sound at a rap festival last weekend, and it was often just one guy and a DJ all day. Doesn't really apply to other genres.
I also have my Ravening Iron lyric sheet and on that one you were on drums, guitar, synth, and backing vocals, so at some point you gave up on not wanting to be credited for everything.
It was actually that one! That was the first time because Jason, the singer of Eternal Champion, talked me out of it. He was like dude, it doesn't fucking matter, it’s fine, you need to be credited for whatever you're doing. And I appreciated that.
For my money, Jason's right.
[Laughs] I do tend to overthink a lot of stuff.
You mentioned that you were doing audio work for a rap festival. Have you always taken a lot of work outside of punk and metal?
I’m a really big music fan in general. I’m a metal enthusiast and die hard but I do love tons of other music and I’ve worked outside of straight metal and rock and stuff like that, most recently with the rapper Ghostemane, who is kind of in the metal world also at the same time. He fuses some ‘90s Memphis rap, industrial, and metal, so I guess it’s kind of in the same realm, but I love electronic stuff and I’ve worked on a lot of stuff like that. I’m a massive fan of 4AD type stuff like Cocteau Twins, and Dead Can Dance, who are my favorite band of all time. I work with a lot of people that are influenced by stuff like that too. I just worked with a band called The Ire that’s really sick- no connection to Eternal Champion. [Laughs]
To tie this back to why we’re doing this interview, do any of these influences that fans might not expect as much creep into your music when you’re writing for Sumerlands or Eternal Champion?
I am almost exclusively influenced by not-metal stuff for Eternal Champion and for Sumerlands. I think of metal and put everything through the metal filter, which is obviously encoded in my DNA since I’ve been listening to classic heavy metal since I was a little kid, but all the stuff that I really, really like is melodic shit. A big influence on the Sumerlands record, if there was a mood board, was The Eagles, Lionel Richie, Tangerine Dream, stuff like that. More melodic stuff will inspire my songwriting switch, something that gives me ideas, and then I just write it as metal, basically. I would definitely say that all of my stuff mostly comes from outside of metal.
Obviously the big overlying influences are still Ozzy Osbourne, Warlord, Manilla Road, Judas Priest, and shit.
It's a longstanding theory of mine that a lot of the reason most modern metal does not hit the peak of those bands you just mentioned is that they’re all too busy ripping off Manilla Road and Judas Priest to realize that they weren't listening to those bands.
That's definitely a fair assessment. There's a lot of great current heavy metal bands, but for every good one there’s three that are doing exactly what you're saying, just getting the vibe and the aesthetic but not necessarily any more than that. [Laughs] Honestly it's all still pretty cool, but I wouldn't throw any of the basic ones on.
What are some of the modern ones that you do really like?
I can rattle off a huge list but there’s one in particular that I've been listening to a lot this week, Mirror from Cyprus. They're just fucking sick. The songs are super well written, and I love the singer's voice, it sounds super Mediterranean. That always strikes a chord with me being a Lebanese person. I love Greek heavy metal, and Cyprus heavy metal obviously, the Mediterranean scene. Even Italy's heavy metal scene sounds so different and influenced by the history of the land they’re from. Warlord was a band of Greek descent and not from Greece but they added tons of Greek-sounding chords and scales into their sound and it’s so fucking sick. Mirror does that as well, the new record is called The Day That Bastard Leaders Die.
To me Dreamkiller sounds a lot less melancholy than the first album did.
Yeah. That's definitely there. There's a little bit more AOR influence on this, and I wanted to have big choruses on it, everything didn't have to be super doomed out. We tried to keep that as much as possible, though. A lot of the guitar riffs I wanted to keep almost coldwave influenced, simple and sad. I would say "Dreamkiller," for example, is one song on the record that is really full out Priest type stuff, power metal, where there’s like no examples of any of the melancholy shit, but a song like "Twilight" definitely has all of the sad Neil Young type riffs, Queenrsÿche type shit, Ozzy Osbourne "Ultimate Sin."
Was this record written before Brendan joined the band, with Phil in mind?
I would say 85% of it was written for Phil, maybe a little bit less than that. There were a couple songs that were basically seedlings when we brought Brendan into the band. "Force of the Storm" being one of them, "The Savior's Lie" I had just the skeleton for. I tweaked those two a little bit once we had Brendan in the band. I was a stickler about keeping stuff catchy, in and out, not like acrobatics but just laid back stuff. "The Savior’s Lie" was the one where I was like Brendan, we're going to give you a song to just do your thing, because he has an amazing voice and a lot of skill.
The rest of it was written with Phil in mind. "Heavens Above," the actual chorus Phil sang on a demo and we kept "Heavens Above" as a little callback tribute to the old singer, who we’re still super tight with. He was also down with Brendan and felt that Brendan was a good choice. He listened to the record before it came out and said it was a great record and was psyched on it even though he didn’t get to sing the songs and they were written for him. Brendan just came in and whooped ass and was perfect on it, for me.
With the release of this new record do you anticipate more live shows in support of it than you did for the first one?
I think we’ll definitely at least be doing the record release show and a bunch of other stuff. We’ll see how it goes. I’m not really a person who feels the need to go out and tour on stuff, but it seems like a lot of people want us to come out, so we’re definitely going to make the effort for the fans as gratitude.
A few years ago I saw you double billed with both Eternal Champion and Sumerlands. I believe you’ve done that a few times. Is it challenging playing two sets back to back like that?
It’s challenging to get logistics together to make it all work out between two big groups of people, but it’s really a fuckload of fun, honestly, to do it. The worst part of all of it is having to practice so much. I don’t like practicing, I don’t get off on practicing, I just like to play and have fun. When I have to play songs over and over and over again it’s like conditioning because you have to play not one hour but two hours, double the notes, and your brain is already rotting from pot and stuff so it’s hard to remember everything.
Speaking of remembering things, what’s next for Sumerlands?
I want to do some gigs, just out of gratitude to the people that want to see us. I’m not really writing anything right now. I’m trying to just enjoy the new record. I can’t start writing until I’m sick of the last record and it just dropped so it’ll be a little bit before I start wanting to write anything. I guess the answer is just chilling. [Laughs] Playing some gigs, hopefully!
I’d also say go check out the Bill Tsamis tribute comp [Editor's Note: Lordian Guard absolutely shreds.], Sumerlands has a song on that, a track cover of "Lost and Lonely Days."
Dreamkiller is out now via Relapse Records. Get it on limited-to-200 gold vinyl.