When you listen to lots of music, it’s fun to predict trends in your listening habits. It’s no secret that the extreme metal well is one that I go to more often than not, and for a while now, I’ve been pretty enamored with the old-school, down-the-middle, riff-and-groove fests that seem to bubble up to the surface at a steady rate. This year I predicted that I would probably still be latching on to these sounds like I have been for a while, but things, as they often do, change. This year has been a bit of a revival of progressive music for me by spending lots of time with Enslaved’s catalog, diving headlong into Horrendous, and cozying up to some releases from I, Voidhanger, such as the mammoth triple album from Esoctrilihum and At the Altar of the Horned God’s latest offering. Simply put, I have been craving oddities with the music I listen to, and this year has handed me some real doozies. One such release was this little EP called Dubious Disk by a New York ensemble calling themselves Sarmat. It was a wild improvisation of jazz and technical death metal that spanned almost twenty minutes and was as brutal as it was effervescent. I was instantly hooked on this pairing and thankfully I only had a couple of months until a full LP showed up in the form of Determined To Strike.
The mixture of jazz with metal isn’t novel by any stretch. That being said, there are a variety of approaches to this idea with varying degrees of saturation. Sometimes subtle, sometimes not. In the case of Sarmat, they have taken the less subtle approach to pretty much everything on this record, including just how jazzy things get. There’s piano, sax, and trumpet, along with the absolute monster guitar tone and drumming that smashes its way through the songs. With all of these instruments swirling together and the monstrous vocals filling any empty space left, this mix of technical death metal and jazz is often overwhelming in the best ways.
While the start of the album is great, it is a bit jarring. The clean tone guitars in “Formed from Filth” and the esoteric keys on “Landform” are some of the early highlights that make Determined to Strike an immediately singular experience. If you’ve been a fan of other bands on the I, Voidhanger label or acts such as Imperial Triumphant, you’re more than likely not taken completely off guard by just how overwhelming this record can get. With Sarmat, however, there is an equal match of brains and brawn. Just when you think this record will never let up, there is a moment to breathe. This isn’t always done through a hard/soft dynamic (which does on occasion happen), but more through the arrangement itself. “Arsenal of Tyranny” spends the first two minutes building an edifice of terror before the composition slides from under the shadow of the avant-garde emulsion of metal and jazz and creates pockets for the horns to punctuate the rhythm, and all of a sudden the world feels less topsy-turvy.
I’ve seen it said before that ‘smooth jazz implies the existence of rough jazz.’ Sarmat are purveyors of rough jazz, perhaps more so than any other band in recent memory. Their approach is far more in favor of putting metal elements into a jazz album than the reverse. That being said, there are some metal-ass metal moments to be heard. “Determined to Strike” is one such track that thrusts you right into a tech death and grind blender with a hurried vocal attack and swirling riffs and leads, while the drums blast their way into oblivion. This is what the cover art promises: an alien presence wreaking havoc on any terrestrial presence in their way.
If you have qualms with production choices, this record may end up frustrating you a little. There is a lot going on and a lot of different instruments to accommodate. The flow of the songs change all the time and goes from incessant tech-death riffing to borderline lounge jazz with soft piano keys and in-the-pocket drumming. That being said, Colin Marston did the mastering on the album, so it carries his magic touch.
Sarmat have dominated my listening lately, and each listen reveals something new and interesting going on. Frankly, I’m floored and didn’t expect to find this much joy in something so dense and often difficult. I have seen a multitude of catchy descriptions of this band, and they’re all correct: this is the current pinnacle of jazz-meets-metal. After Dubious Disk, I was sure they would be destined for great things given their skill and power of improvisation, and this near-immediate follow-up excels in some new ways. Perhaps the greatest strength of this album – and by extension, this band – is the ability to employ restraint. It’s obvious that Sarmat could easily go off of the deep end with their music but focusing on creating cohesive songs that venture beyond expected boundaries is a feat that few can pull off so well.