(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Recording review - Yamantaka // Sonic Titan, UZU (2013)

Artsy zen perfection of fire and space

Songs or albums? For most people, it’s no contest. Picking and choosing single tracks lets them winnow the pearls from the crappy packing material that some bands use to pad out their albums. Through playlists or iTunes shuffle, juxtaposing bands and songs provides novelty and synchronicity, satisfying the need for variety. Then a band like Yamantaka // Sonic Titan (YT//ST) comes along and negates the whole question. On UZU, the Montreal art and music collective pitches the viability of the concept album, but they also deliver strong songs drawn from a multidimensional sonic palette. In classic concept album form, tunes smoothly meld into one another and many exhibit similar strains of melodic DNA. But while the pieces share a mood, they aren’t overburdened with a ham-fisted storyline. As a complete set, the songs offer a genre-jumping wild ride but each can also stand alone.

On paper, YT//ST embodies an artsy stereotype that could easily fall into parody. As much performance artists as musicians, they’ve mixed media from rock operas about rival drag queens (33) to video games (YOUR TASK//SHOOT THINGS) along with their album releases and they usually perform in stylized Kabuki-like makeup. Their self-proclaimed musical style is not merely descriptive, but asserts an artistic statement: “Asian diasporic psychedelic black stoner synth opera.” Since that’s a bit of a mouthful, they’ve coined the term “Noh-Wave” as a shorthand descriptor, crossing Japanese Noh Theater with a reference to the no-wave music scene of the late ‘70s. It’s all very precious, but in a refreshing surprise, their music successfully avoids the kind of pretentious self-indulgence that usually comes with this stereotype.

Noh-wave is a cute bit of wordplay, but the band isn't abrasive enough to sell the no-wave half of the term. Instead, their musical foundation is rooted in progressive rock, especially the stylized sound of bands like Renaissance. Ruby Kato Attwood’s singing never quite rivals Annie Haslam’s warm purity, but the strong femme vocals enrich the songs. Often draped with echo and chorus, they fit well with the orchestration that varies from simple piano to heavier rock guitar. While the band’s sweet spot is centered on prog rock, YT//ST takes small steps into art rock and larger leaps in symphonic metal, experimental music, psychedelia and electo-pop. Like the artistic stereotype, this mish-mash of styles shouldn't be a recipe for success either, but the band traverses the list with fluid grace, smoothly transforming from one to the next, even within a single song.

UZU opens with a Chopinesque piano on “Atalanta”. When the ethereal vocal joins in, the track slips into that progressive, theatrical Renaissance mode. The song itself stays stripped down; Attwood’s trained voice, backed by the simple piano, suggests prophecies delivered on open dream-plane. But it picks up power and momentum when the song transitions into the symphonic metal start of “Whalesong” with the addition of pounding drums and a driving bass line. Angular guitar riffs, crunching chords and keyboard backing contribute to the intensity, but the singing remains distinct and distant. It’s an eerie effect, pitting an ice princess inside a glass shell against the fiery music. Dynamic drops allow elements of the last song’s piano peek out from under the insistent power ballad. The sound builds into a thick, trippy swirl before letting the Sturm und Drang dissolve completely to take us back to the uncluttered soundscape of “Atalanta”, this time overlaid with the sound of a flowing river. The watery ripples melt into a chaotic sonic collage for the next track, “Lamia”. Here, the tension builds into a precise math-rock crunch. The drumbeat is insistent, with paradiddle riffs and cymbal washes beating against the methodically steady guitar and bass. If the ice princess was spooky in “Whalesong,” now she’s taken on the title’s demonic persona, shrouded in swirling echo. Simultaneously wicked and ethereal, her advice has a threatening subtext, “If you have a heart/ Keep it in your body.” Reverberations overlap and interfere and the repetitive cycle of distortion is hypnotic, pulling you under her spell. There’s a sense of continuity from the first tune, distant foreboding is finally realized.

Although UZU is full of strong tracks, YT//ST chose their first single well. “One” touches base with the band’s appreciation of cross-cultural exploration and starts with an Native American flavor. Chanting vocals and an infectious double-time tribal beat set the stage and then mutate into an acid-washed garage grind. Retro psychedelic guitar weaves it way into the groove and the message kicks in, “Ever wonder what it’s like to live in America?” The melting pot sound incorporates myriad essences of American music: Amerind tones, surrealistic San Francisco textures, rock intensity, an electro-beat breakdown and even a bit of free jazz chaos. This is exactly the America I want to inhabit and this is the tune I want to build a whole playlist around.

In keeping with the Asian themes that YT//ST incorporates, a yin-yang balance is at play. Songs of heady intensity are immersed together in the swift, twisting current of the playlist while a concept album bears its theme lightly. Stylized artistic gestures create powerfully concrete music. As a result, UZU sits like a perfect Zen koan: Is it the songs or the album that connects? Not songs, not album, the mind connects.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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