Remember the days when all that was heavy could be traced geographically? The Bay Area forged titans of thrash, the East Coast staked a claim on hardcore, the Nordic countries were painting it black so it wouldn’t get lost in the snow, and The New Wave of British Heavy Metal sailed beneath the Union Jack. While such territorialism didn’t necessarily ensure unwavering quality, it imbued the scenes with an immutable identity. Musical borders were drawn and patches were worn on leather jackets like emblems on military uniforms.
The modern digital age has all but scrubbed these lines from the sand as music moves through media like moisture through the ecosystem – dispensed, absorbed, reformed, and recycled. While this is in no way damning to the art form, the old adage of ‘location, location, location’ has been wholly usurped by ‘www.’
Let’s face it: the music world hasn’t seen a movement with any discernible geographic epicenter since grunge. One could concede that New York has been pulsing up an indie-dance-rock scene, but no zeitgeist should necessitate so many syllables and hyphens, not to mention the fact that hipsters are far too cool to passionately fit themselves into anything other than skinny jeans. American metal has been similarly uncomfortable with itself for sometime. We survived the rap crossover trying to do it all for the nookie, and screamo kindly obliged the desires of metal purists by marinating itself in a warm bath with opened veins.
But while you might not be seeing it in headlines and radio Top 40 – lo! How the south has risen again! Atlanta bloomed onto the music scene just over a decade ago. The fruits, initially planted and picked by the hip hop hands of Outkast, Goodie Mob and the rest of the Dungeon Family crew eschewed the clenched fist aesthetic of gangster rap and opted for a psychedelic, retro soul sound. But in the past few years, the hip hop scene has been passing the cup over to the broader music scene. One need only sample Janelle Monáe’s sci-fi cyberlust opera The ArchAndroid or Of Montreal’s waving of Prince’s purple rock scepter in their freaky sex decree False Priest to see that a mind-bending confederacy has assembled. And thankfully, the torch has been passed to the metal community.
2009 saw Mastodon stake their claim on the vein of modern progressive music with the hallucinatory Crack The Skye, an entry whose only rival to Metal Album Of The Year was The Blue Album from neighboring Savannah’s own Baroness. Individually, the two albums represented two sides of the same coin of metal’s gold standard: sweeping, ambitious song structures and planet crushing riffs.
Another album crawled into the lava pool the same year: Static Tensions by Mastodon tour mates and fellow Georgians Kylesa. While a fine album by any standard, the record failed to do justice to the Savannah band’s live show. Two guitars, bass, and two drums constituted a brutal parliament for the unsuspecting crowd – dense yet woven, like an ogre’s bicep.
However, the album experience seemed content to have the guitarists play low-sung unison groves and the drummers play in tandem, like the joined form of Station from Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. The effect, while no less punishing, belied the group’s live presence and sounded more like a trio bolstered by studio sleight of hand.
That the band could produce Spiral Shadow less than a year and a half after their last is commendable enough, but no one could have expected that their sound would morph this much. In so short a span, the band has grown with the grotesque grace of a Lovecraftian beast. Kylesa has finally become more than the sum of its parts, a fearsome entity of beauty and brutality.
‘Tired Climb‘ kicks off with keyboard drones before drummers Carl McGinley and Tyler Newberry slowly summon the band to arms with their toms. The guitars paint the eye of a storm with sustained chords beneath a slippery pedal tone – and then it all goes to hell as the listener is thrown to the maelstrom.
The album thrives on these transitions, setting you atop a wave that threatens a storm before thrashing you with a beast of a riff from below. The new aesthetic invokes much of the lucid meditations of the recently defunct Isis, although unlike Isis or Mastodon, Kylesa subscribes to the belief that brevity is the soul of savagery. Though only two of the eleven songs stretch over four minutes in length, each explores a lush sonic terrain. Dynamic and textural shifts abound, and yet despite the songs’ short spans, nothing about them feels forced.
The quintet achieves this paradox of epic concision by never retreating to a single feel as a group – there is always at least one player keeping the music on overdrive. For the break during ‘Cheating Synergy,’ a tapping lick cascades over sparse chords and bass while the drums keep up the tempo. Contrast this with the title track’s verse: as the rest of the band floats in celestial echoes, the drums peck at the snare rims like a frantic stock ticker.
Perhaps the album’s most impressive quality is how disarmingly catchy it is. The lyrics read like brooding zen poems, delivered alternately with gravelly growls and melodic moans, and sometimes both at once. Each discernible chorus becomes a mantra for the pit. ‘Don’t Look Back‘ recalls early Nebula, with its chanted refrain interspersed with a rapturously uplifting guitar lick skipping over downtempo chugging. Whether we’re blessed with a late entry for Metal Album Of The Year or not, Kylesa has made a strong bid for that title on behalf of the American Southwest. Spiral Shadow not only appeases hungry fans but invites new ones, and perhaps not just from the well-established metal community. If you appreciate rock and are looking for a weightier dose, this could very well be the fringe album that tips the scales and has you falling for the heavy.