Sometimes I think bands just use changing record labels as an excuse to screw with their own sound. Certainly Savannah, Georgia, sludge-bringers Kylesa have grown over the course of their four prior studio offerings, but with the latest, Spiral Shadow (their first for Season of Mist), they push their approach into new territory in terms of how it touches on both prog and pop, and come out sounding easily the tightest they ever have, but also the most melodically capable and farthest ranging.
It should say something that in a band with two drummers the guitars still dominate, but that’s the case with Spiral Shadow. By now it goes without saying that guitarist/vocalist Phillip Cope did an outstanding job with the production – his prowess in that area is well-documented and one can chart his growth as an engineer/producer over the course of Kylesa’s career – but on Spiral Shadow he seems to have smoothed out the band’s sound some. You can hear it in the tones of opener “Tired Climb,” or in the mixing of the ringing notes that mark the intro to second track, “Cheating Synergy.” Of course, the rhythm section of bassist Corey Barhorst and drummers Tyler Newberry and Carl McGinely is still essential to what Kylesa does, but Spiral Shadow’s focus seems just as much on bringing forward the five-piece’s instrumental and vocal melodicism as on pummeling with sludge or surprising with quick percussive turns.
Guitarist/vocalist Laura Pleasants made a breakthrough on Kylesa’s last album, 2009’s Static Tensions (their final album on Prosthetic Records), and here she refines and redefines her role in the band. Her interplay with Cope, as on “Drop Out” – which also features some of Spiral Shadow’s best performances from McGinely and Newberry – makes that track among the record’s strongest, but it’s on songs like the poppier “Don’t Look Back,” where Kylesa approaches Torche-like accessibility, and “To Forget” that she really demonstrates how much she’s come into her own in terms of clean singing. It’s strange to think of Kylesa as a band with a frontperson of any kind, since up to this point it’s always been about the group’s performance as a whole, but to call Pleasants’ work on Spiral Shadow anything less than standout is to undersell it.
As ever with the band, I imagine mixing Spiral Shadow was a complete nightmare. So many elements at work at once, two guitars, two drummers, two vocalists and poor Barhorst all alone on bass. It’s a credit to the band that they manage to sound as crisp and tight as they do on prog noodler “Crowded Road,” on which Cope takes lead vocally with an energy and poise that bespeaks his own creative development. The band seems to have pared down somewhat structurally on Spiral Shadow, and by that I mean they tightened their songwriting and the songs themselves are shorter. “Drop Out” clocks at 4:29, and that’s only one of two tracks over four minutes. Songs like the dramatic “Distance Closing In,” the heavier “Forsaken” and of course “Don’t Look Back” and “To Forget” accomplish what they need to in time that where it not for the currently hellish climate thereof I might call “radio friendly.” If there’s a rule, however, there’s an exception, and that’s the title track, ninth of the total 12, which tops out at 10:24 and follows a more winding, open structure reminiscent of some of Kylesa’s past work. Even here, though, as the band transitions from a jammy melodic break into the song’s heftier midsection, progress is evident.
No doubt they’re a more powerful act for their increased focus on songwriting, as post-“Spiral Shadow” closing duo “Back and Forth” and “Dust” only seem to further reinforce. After what was unquestionably intended as the album’s apex, the ensuing two songs were bound to be something of a comedown, but the insistent punk drumming of the former pushes it through its 2:33 quickly and the finale offers airy guitars and an accomplished and atmospheric vocal from Cope, so it’s not like either is lacking. Kylesa had already shown themselves as able to affect a dark, heavy, sometimes oppressive atmosphere with their music, but on Spiral Shadow, they show another side that’s no less forceful for being less abrasive. I thought they were going to have their work cut out for them following Static Tensions (and, for that matter, 2006’s Time Will Fuse its Worth before that), but they’ve outdone themselves here and set a new bar for their future work. There will be those who decry its pop feel, but frankly, that’s their loss.
Tags: Georgia, Kylesa, Savannah, Season of Mist