May 28, 2013

Music Review: "Ultraviolet" by Kylesa

By Ian Cory

This may sound like a given, but there are a lot of bands out there. Like, way too many. So many that you often have to make choices about which bands of a certain ilk you want to devote your time to. Sometimes this works; I certainly don’t need 50 different albums of a style that I only listen to occasionally, but other times, when it comes to genres I really love, I can spend years ignoring great work in favor of the familiar. Although my body of work on Wine & Pop doesn’t suggest it, I am at heart a huge fan of heavy music, be it punk, metal or anything in between. For years I had ignored Kylesa in favor of fellow Georgia natives Baroness and Mastodon. This was a huge mistake.

Mastodon, Baroness and Kylesa all have roots in the same place, sludgy southern fried metal, but all three have gone in very different directions. Mastodon embraced their progressive rock tendencies* and Baroness gave up their thorniness for relaxed folk jams and crowd friendly rock anthems, but Kylesa have only gotten weirder and more abstract over the years. Ultraviolet is particularly weird. Most metal albums put their guitars in the foreground, panning multiple layers across the mix while keeping the drums dead center with the vocals. Ultraviolet inverts this by hard panning Kylesa’s dual percussion to both sides of the mix while keeping the stringed instruments in the center and letting the vocals embed themselves deep in the wall of sound. Even more improbable for a metal record, the mix actually changes significantly from song to song, which lets each song stake out its own identity. On the heavier songs, the drums will ease out of the low end giving more space to Philip Cope and Laura Pleasents’ thick and weighty guitars, while on the lighter tunes the guitars will air out and leave the density to the percussion. The flexibility of the guitars also allows for some amazing shifts within each song, like when they switch from crushing to textural in the second verse of “We’re Taking This” or the sudden burst of intensity at the end of ‘Steady Breakdown”.

More than anything, the odd sonic quality of Ultraviolet serves as a vehicle for Kylesa’s unique and compelling sense of composition and momentum. Unlike most bands that explore psychedelic territory Kylesa keep their songs short and direct, and while they aren’t big on writing obvious hooks, they do have a profound sense of melodic economy. The dual vocal approach does lend itself to some of the album’s catchier moments, like the peppy chorus of “Vultures Landing” or the hazy laid back verses in “Low Tide”**, but most of the standouts come from the guitars. On some songs they lumber through simple sludge riffs, on others they float and flicker with effects reminiscent of The Cure’s Disintegration. This distinctly 80’s vibe is especially noticeable on the album’s closing track, which is remarkably relaxed until a roaring finale featuring Pleasents screaming her heart out. Ending on such an extreme note feels much more valuable after the calm preceding it, a lesson that nearly every heavy band could stand to review.

Ultraviolet isn’t perfect. There are a few moments where the most effective song writing choice is dismissed in favor of creating a new sonic texture, but thankfully these excursions don’t last long, and are often pretty interesting listens when removed from the context of the larger work. These pockets of hallucinatory manipulation are part of what makes this record so remarkably unique even in an era where metal bands are starting to break down some of the genres oldest rules. They may not have the blog friendly controversial streak of some of the NYC black metal bands, or the hip look of the current metallic hardcore scene, but Kylesa are doing valuable work. Don’t make the same mistake I did.

Grade: B+

*Of course they subsequently ran headlong into the other direction with The Hunter, fulfilling all of the prophecies that they are this generation’s Metallica by releasing what is certainly their Black Album

**Another interesting tidbit about this song, and a few others on the album, is that it stays in a major key for most of its runtime, another unorthodox choice for a metal band. The last few years have seen an increase in artsy heavy bands tinkering with major keys while maintaining their intensity. One particularly incredible example of this is Deafheaven’s Sunbather an album that I won’t have a chance to write about for its release, but will definitely get some coverage on my year end list.

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