Merchant, Suzerain: Seeds and Veins (Plus Full Album Stream)


[Merchant release Suzerain on April 18. Click play above to stream the album in full.]

Proffering massive roll over four extended tracks, drenching itself in an encompassing bleakness and grand-scale semi-psych sludge extremity, Merchant‘s Suzerain impresses with a sense of vision underlying that few debuts can claim. A four-piece based in the crowded Melbourne, Australia, heavy scene, Merchant issued their first single, the 10-minute Seismic (review here), just last year, and Suzerain‘s four similarly-extended tracks affirm the potential that piece showed, while also expanding the band’s reach into YOB-style cosmic crush and menacingly abrasive growls, the first-names-only lineup of vocalist Mirgy, guitarist Ben, bassist/vocalist Wilson and drummer Nick coming together as a single, lurching unit, rawer than fellow Melbourne residents Whitehorse, but vibrant in a disaffection that wouldn’t be out of place alongside the heft of Horsehunter or Watchtower, despite having a danker atmosphere.

Though they get there anyhow, the tracks on Suzerain — “Seed and Soil” (8:51), “Mourning Light” (11:37), “Suzerain” (20:17) and “Black Vein” (8:59) — feel less concerned with conjuring tonal largesse than with making skin crawl, and as the opener thunders its way through its initial roll circling back for each verse line in a grueling nod, there doesn’t seem to be a goal set by the band that isn’t met by the time the chug opens up to dual-vocals and hits building to a head prior to the midsection. Ben introduces another element that will be in play across the record in the second half of “Seed and Soil,” which is the airy, psychedelic lead guitar cutting through all that crush, but in light of the aforementioned YOB and the likes of Ufomammut, one could hardly accuse it of being out of place, particularly as the solo shreds.

More accurately, playing space echoes off earthbound roll only deepens the complexity of what Merchant are able to do with their first album, and by expanding their sonic palette, they only further the potential they showed last year. When it starts following the raging finish of the opener, “Mourning Light” introduces itself with quiet but still tense guitar, drums joining after about a minute in and Mirgy‘s raw-throated rasp delivering the title line soon thereafter. A slow churn ensues that Nick‘s drums seem to be holding together amid the low-end wash of each riff. Again, we get a taste of psychedelic guitar early, but it’s brief, and Merchant soon dip back into the nod at the track’s core, the sheer density of it providing a gravity pull downward on the listener. It’s heavy, in nearly a physical sense. Past the midpoint, guitar and bass open up a bit, but it’s all leading toward a faster thrust at the apex of “Mourning Light,” an uptick in tempo leading, naturally, to a deconstructing slowdown that rounds out. One could quibble about which is actually the peak of the build, but at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter whether you’ve been hit in the head with a shovel or with a hammer — the result is the same.

merchant (Photo by Sally Townsend)

Of course, as it consumes 40 percent of Suzerain‘s 50-minute runtime, the title-track is a major focal point, and one which, further to the band’s credit, they execute fluidly across a purposefully overwhelming span, toying some with pacing early on, but only winding up more excruciating as Mirgy and Wilson again come together in layers of growing and the kick resumes circa the five-minute mark. The thud and roll that follows serves as the rumbling bed for a fuzzed-out lead from Ben, and at 7:53, a second layer of the solo joins in even more forward in the mix, the two coming together in a swirl that meets the lumbering head-on with its own scorch, such that as the verse resumes shortly before nine minutes in, the transition is jarring like a crash to the ground. This also is doubtless intentional. “Suzerain” stomps and crashes its way to its midsection on a gradual fade with the bass and drums remaining, joined soon by open-spaced guitar that seems to provide something Merchant haven’t yet offered: a moment of respite.

It’s brief. Before long, the band resume their full-weight course forward, uphill, in snow, dragging who knows what. But the effect of that quick break is important in the hypnotic element of it, lulling the listener into a false sense of security that’s soon to evaporate, as well as in showcasing Merchant‘s commitment to more than just heft and extreme vocals. Like the flourishes of melody throughout Suzerain and those which the lead guitar brings to the second half of the title-track, it’s another example of the four-piece working to distinguish themselves and establish a sonic personality of their own. They tease a faster progression, but ultimately keep “Suzerain” at its slow-grinding clip and bring it to a wash of noise from which the drums depart in the last minute to let the noise hold sway on a longer fade into the sudden crash of the intro to closer “Black Vein,” which Nick sets up as a faster thrust that maintains an angularity in kind with the opener before letting loose some of the pent-up tension in a more upbeat motion.

Playing back and forth in verses and choruses, they soon move into a post-halfway-point breakdown, vocal tradeoffs, china cymbal and all, and everything drops out save for the guitar, which resumes a chugging gallop before “Black Vein” hits its sixth minute. By then they’re bordering on thrash and it’s a wonder tones so thick can move at all, but though a big, final slowdown is somewhat telegraphed, that doesn’t make its arrival any less satisfying. Merchant hit the brakes and ride out “Black Vein” on a molasses lurch topped with a line of manipulated feedback that at last gives way to the oppressive final measure, faded out to close. It should say something that Merchant hold that aggression to the very last second of their debut, but it shouldn’t say that aggression is all the band has to offer. Suzerain might seem monolithic on an initial listen, but it’s not, and especially in light of it being Merchant‘s debut, it affords the band multiple avenues of growth going forward, even as it lands with all the apparent subtlety usually considered for giant rocks from outer space. Visceral at times, it nonetheless engages in how it conducts its own extremity.

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