Album Review: Sunless – “Ylem” (Death Metal)

Written by Kep

Sunless – Ylem

Dissonant death metal from Minnesota, USA

Releasing October 29 via Willowtip Records

The first ten months of 2021 sure have been chock full of challenging, bewilderingly dissonant and avant-garde death metal, haven’t they? There was Ad Nauseam and Suffering Hour back in February, Blindfolded and Led to the Woods in March, Ghastly and Portal in May, Qrixkuor in August, Replicant and Defacement in September, and the list goes on. We’ve even had excellent EP releases from bands like Turris Eburnea, Nightmarer, and Mære. Now on the eve of Devil’s Night we have yet another record designed to crack your head open and twist your gray matter around until it’s nothing but mush: Sunless’ Ylem. And make your brain feel like it’s been in a blender it absolutely will. 

Sunless first broke onto the scene back in 2017 with Urraca, an album that was impressive in many ways, not the least of which was its surprising maturity. You don’t find too many bands that can write a full-length of Urraca’s complexity and depth right from the jump, but they pulled it off in striking fashion. Pulling from their obvious inspirations Gorguts and Ulcerate—they pretty much sound like if those two had a hideous baby—the trio compiled a collection of multilayered and remarkably dense riffs and roars. As a result, my expectations for Ylem were quite high, but I also approached it with a small grain of salt, as satisfying follow-ups to universally praised efforts are difficult to accomplish. 

Simply put: this is a satisfying follow-up and more. On Ylem guitarist/vocalist Lucas Scott, bassist Mitch Schooler, and new drummer Taylor Hamel (who joined in 2019) have outdone Urraca in every way, creating an opus that is simultaneously more dense, more intricate, and somehow almost feels more accessible. The guitar and bass swirl and contort like writhing snakes, sinewy yet powerful, sitting just on the threshold of disorder without ever crossing that line, before settling into powerful angular grooves that allow for just enough time for your ear to catch up before the churning madness creeps back in. It’s this balance and sensibility that elevates Sunless to such an impressive level on Ylem: at no point do they get so caught up in being inscrutable that the relative familiarity of their death metal framework is completely abandoned.

You can find this sort of writing in every one of the 8 tracks on the record, starting right off the top with “Spiraling into the Unfathomable”. A maelstrom of dissonance, blast beats, and hoarse growls bursts out without a single second of introduction, sweeping you into the storm with tentacles of angular guitar that reach out of roiling turmoil beneath. The meter is triple, but the riff structure itself is asymmetrical, a total of beats equal to 9 measures making up the cycle before it repeats; it’s the kind of thing that the ear immediately notices as uncomfortable, because our conditioning leads us to expect an even number of measures. The section that follows, though, is less angular and far more pummeling in the traditional sense, with a short descending line that leads down into a punishing, driving straightahead rhythm. It doesn’t stay for long, of course, and before the riff is gone they’ve already begun to twist and contort it, but the impact lasts.

Across the 39-minute runtime of Ylem (itself an important difference from Urraca, which was a slightly too-lengthy 44) the band makes clear that their brand of music has evolved even while staying true to itself. For one, the tracks feel more distinct now. From the hurrying madness of the first song there’s an immediate shift to “Ascended Forms”, a piece that feels heavier and more chunky despite having a few more melodic lines. “The Unraveling of Arcane Past” opens with a lurching Gorguts riff that you could’ve easily convinced me was written by Luc Lemay. The layers of sounds that Sunless achieve are much richer now, as well. The back half of “Atramentous” is notable, as it slows the pace after a violently crunchy opening with a moment of atmospheric reverb before exotic clean guitar transports us briefly out of the storm. Lead single “Forgotten (Remnants of Life)” stands out, too, growing slowly out of the quiet ambient ending of the track before, instruments weaving in and out of one another like threads in some unearthly loom before arriving in a massively thick texture all together. Here Schooler’s bass takes the lead, subtly reminding me of Beyond Creation, with bulging and bouncing licks pushing the group forward from deep within.

The production is similarly a noticeable improvement from Urraca, which is saying something because that album sounded pretty darn good. Recording was handled by veteran producer Adam Tucker, and mixing and mastering was handled by a man who needs no introduction: Colin Marston. The overall depth of sound is flat-out amazing, with layer upon layer of instruments that all hold their own place in the mix without the ensemble ever feeling like less than an entirely cohesive whole. Ylem has a warmer and rounder overall tone than Sunless used previously, especially in the rhythm section, and it’s absolutely for the better; the writing is crunchy and aggressive enough without the production being harsh. I wish the vocals were a touch higher in the mix, though, because they’re so well-blended into the overall sound that at times they can feel a bit peripheral instead of carrying the lyrical focus.

THE BOTTOM LINE

When you think of dissonant death metal acts, there are certain pillars of the genre that come to mind: GorgutsUlceratePortal, and the like. With YlemSunless is firmly cementing themselves as an outfit that deserves to be mentioned with those giants. It’s impressive from top to bottom, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it making the rounds come list time in December. 

Favorite track: “The Unraveling of Arcane Past”

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