Interview: Sumerlands on Making a Non-Metal Metal Album

The ingredients needed to make the best throwback metal record of the year are a bit different than you’d expect. First, you need Fender Stratocasters (no substitutes, according to the chef) for their clean, crystalline sound. Second, you need a heaping dose of a wide range of retro sounds: ’70’s prog rock (think Uriah Heap, Yes, and Camel in big leather jackets); Mom rock like Fleetwood Mac; yacht rock like Lionel Richie; and AOR like Foreigner, Journey, and Survivor. Lastly, you need the weird parts of The Cure, think their lesser-loved album Faith.

Notice none of those are actually metal ingredients, but when they are mixed and blended twice for good measure, the results are the most fun you can have listening to a record in 2022: Sumerland’s soon-to-be-classic: Dreamkiller, out now via Relapse Records. I’ve never heard a metal record that feels so uninterested in being metallic, and it’s so awesome because of that.

The Philly-based band are back after exactly six years to the day with their sophomore record, one that somehow one-ups and reframes everything that made their debut so special. This is the type of retro metal that—while it is porn for music historians—is all about the vibes. It’s a dark, contemplative record at its heart, but as guitarist Arthur Rizk relates, it’s also a gleeful appreciation of the power of music. It’s also an ode to what guitars can do when guitarist get to play them, rather than relying on distortion.

“Actually, on the first record that the synthesizer was all over the record, I guess I was fearful of it coming off too gimmicky and too synth metal-y or something. I didn’t want it to be power metal. I really liked the little flourishes, like Mercyful Fate-esque type stuff. On this record, you can actually hear bits of the band Warlord. They have a lot of Euro-sounding synth, more Mediterranean- and Greek-type stuff, and I’m Lebanese.

“I think just having more of that this time around; this is my record that I don’t really give a fuck what anybody thinks at this point (laughs). We have a new singer,” he continues, referencing the excellent Brendan Radigan, “and it’s like a rebirth of the band. You mentioned Foreigner earlier in the conversation, and I’m a massive fan of those productions. I think I just got more into producing in general. I love the use of synthesizer on the Foreigner stuff. All the synth isn’t front and center; it’s more texturizing things, so if you want to give the illusion of melancholy, one of the best ways to do it is just have a droning, high synth. I wanted all the songs to be somewhat dark and Mediterranean-tinged.”

It’s very evident from the first listen that Rizk and company wanted to play up on that notion of epic songs that sound triumphant, but there is a clear, creeping darkness behind everything else. Rizk has a humorous reason behind that minor key melancholy:

“I was raised Lebanese Maronite Catholic, and pretty much the music was the only thing that ever stuck with me. And being Lebanese in general, there’s a total, 100%, night-and-day difference between people over on the European side of the world and people on our side of the world, of the metal that we like. Euros are much more into things that are, I don’t want to say ‘eccentric,’ but I would say they’re down with a band’s later records. Put it that way. If a band is a big ’80’s thrash band, chances are people in Europe are still following the records they made in the ‘90s/2000s that were maybe gothic rock, like Paradise Lost, for example, or Sentenced, bands like those that started out one way and became something else. I don’t know what the reasoning is behind this. I feel people in America move much faster with music trends.

“Coming back full circle,” he continues, “my cousins in Lebanon got me in the heavy metal. And when they gave me stuff, when they would give me cassettes to bring back to America with me; they were Virtual XI by Iron Maiden and random shit like that, but they were my heroes, so I was like, ‘I got to get into whatever they’re into because they’re so fucking cool.’ So I have the Euro metal influence, which really comes out on this record more than the last one.”

To put a finer point to it, Dreamkiller feels like as many as possible influences were put into a record. If you don’t listen to the words, you don’t realize how dark it is. Rizk shares about the underlying darkness:

“The whole record is, more or less, about the hopelessness in life. I laugh because we all have a really good sense of humor about it. It’s almost like we’re gluttons for punishment and fucking masochists, you know what I mean? It is what it is, and we think it’s funny, but it is really at the deep, sad core of it how I believe. What the fuck does anything matter, really? Enjoy it while you’re here. And that’s what the record is about, more or less.

“And also, you were mentioning that the songs are metallic, but not really full-on heavy metal. That’s always been what I’ve wanted with Sumerlands, to be heavy metal, but I wanted it to be as accessible as alternative rock in a sense, where the songs are still fucking good songs and not us just shredding and jacking off for whoever.

“Metal is so much of that,” he continues. “I think that there’s just needs to be moments, and I think moments and vibes are way more important than just full-on overkill and stuff. I listened to a lot of coldwave when I first started getting into music, and there are a lot of French bands, like Asylum Party and like stuff like that, but The Cure were the first band ever to make a minimal goth record, Faith. That, to me, could be the greatest metal record of all time with a couple tweaks, and that’s also something that I’m massively influenced by.”

What’s Rizk’s favorite part of this record?

“I would say that the biggest thing that I wanted to accomplish with it was integrating Brendan’s vocals into these songs and stepping up the band, basically, a little bit in the sense of songwriting. I did want to make more song-y songs so that we had all the dance guitar stuff and the synths and everything else, but then also the catchy vocals in there somewhere, I think we did that, and that, to me, that’s all I could have ever asked for. I don’t care who the fuck likes the record. I don’t care. We love it; we’re psyched about it, and that’s all that I wanted.

“But if you want a less political and grand answer,” he adds, “I would say my favorite moment on the record would probably be in ‘Dreamkiller.’ There’s a moment in the middle of the song where there’s a twin guitar harmony, and it’s an ode to just a bunch of grandiose, ’70’s rock intros and outros. It’s not one thing or another, but it’s just this very electric moment, and I think that came off perfectly, exactly how I’d imagined it in my mind.

“And also, ‘Force of the Storm.’ It’s the only really synth-based song on the record. It has an arpeggiated pace throughout the whole song. I love the way that song came out, and when we were in the middle of writing, we were thinking of another one of our lost brothers, this guy named Wade Allison. I had sent him this song as an instrumental before he died, and he was fucking obsessed with it. So when we were coming up with the lyrics, Brendan, I think, gave a couple nods to him in this song too, so I love that. And the guitar solo in the song too also is very ‘80s, Stevie Nicks-esque.”

Long live Fleetwood Mac, but more importantly, love live Sumerlands, who have come back from the astral plane that is Philly to deliver a hell of an album.

Follow the band here. 

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