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Yakuza, Beyul: The Body Distorting the Mind

Beyul is the second Yakuza album to be released via Profound Lore. The continually underrated Chicago-based four-piece issued Of Seismic Consequence (review here) in 2010, and in that time, not much superficial has changed. Vocalist Bruce Lamont continues to lead the way with his warnings of the consequences of excess and his saxophone, guitarist Matt McClelland, bassist Ivan Cruz and drummer James Staffel doing a more than able job in keeping up and at times setting the course for Yakuza’s post-metallic shifts between ambient spaces and grinding aural crush. Once again, Sanford Parker helmed as producer as he has since sharing those duties with Matt Bayles on 2006’s Prosthetic Records debut, Samsara, and as with the ensuing Transmutations (2007, also Prosthetic) and Of Seismic Consequence, the pairing works well and to the advantage of the material. Hell, cellist Alison “Helen Money” Chesley even returns for a guest appearance on three of Beyul’s tracks, so if you were thinking their sixth album might be some radical departure from the successful blend of progressive metal, ambient hum and jazz textures Yakuza was able to accomplish on Of Seismic Consequence – to be blunt – it ain’t. What Beyul is, however, is not only a logical extension of the ideas the band presented the last time around, but a tighter performance, with burgeoning melodic breadth to complement the stylistic freedom that seems to have always been at their core. Of progress, they continue to make a rolling stone, but how they’re doing that has changed. Perhaps the most notable difference between Beyul and its predecessor – again, superficially – is its length, which has dropped from a heady 51:55 to a vinyl-ready 38:46, and the adoption of a structure as well that feels suited to the LP form, a split perceivable between the two longest tracks, highlight cut “Man is Machine” (8:29), and the following “Fire Temple and Beyond” (9:55). If there are plans for a vinyl release, I don’t know, but even on a CD, Beyul seems to be driving toward that form, the last four of the album’s total seven tracks pushing further into the blistering avant garde – by now long since familiar territory for Yakuza.

With the most diverse and engaging vocal performance of his career fronting the band, Lamont remains a focal point throughout Beyul, developing the range he began to establish last time out and reserving a harsher approach for the penultimate thrasher “Species” (1:26), the mounting chaos of which serves as a release for much of the tension the album has built to that point. Earlier tracks like “On the Last Day” or the opener “Oil and Water” meld post-metal tribal-style rhythms with varying degrees of memorability in songwriting. Rabidly percussed, “Oil and Water” nonetheless has a chorus, and not a weak one, but coupled with the intensity of the initial churn, the two competing sides feel almost like the title, and even when they offer some release for the tension around 1:45, and screaming lead guitars pave the way for effective echoing vocals, the insistent thud is shortly to resume. If Yakuza had meant to write a catchy pop song, it might be an issue, but to date, that’s never been their aim. The thrashing riff they seem to be ending with gives way to one last chorus, and “On the Last Day” continues the push into maelstrom, offsetting with sax-led jazz ambience. Chesley guests here, as on “Man is Machine” and “Fire Temple and Beyond,” which follow in succession, and Angela Mullenhour and Tim Remus also contribute to “On the Last Day,” resulting in a kind of orchestral experimentation that’s met with multiple layers of vocals. In the heavier parts – because, despite effective contrast, that’s what they are – the line “Deny it all” is a sustained standout from Lamont, and that sets up the expectation for more of a chorus, which “Man is Machine” delivers after an initial plod and washes of low end wipe the slate clean from the pummeling opening duo. For guest spots, Mars Williams and Dave Rempis join Chesley and Mullenhour, and of course Lamont, McClelland, Cruz and Staffel as well, on “Man is Machine,” giving the song even more of a sense of culmination. Nonetheless, it’s the song that stands itself out, the repetition of “The body distorting the mind” following a faster cadence that reminds curiously of early ‘90s Primus before they cycle back into the lumbering verse.

There are several consequences that stem from having the third track on a seven-track album be the strongest in terms of songwriting, and the most notable of them is that there are still four more to go. It would be less prevalent on an LP – which is part of why I consider Beyul to be structured that way – but on the CD, “Fire Temple and Beyond” follows “Man is Machine” immediately and seems a comedown for most of its 9:55 runtime. Again, that’s probably on purpose. The song is slower, and minimal compared to “Man is Machine,” more linear in its structure. There’s less of a sense of being consumed by its swirl, and though Chesley remains for the final of her three guest spots, even when the pace picks up just before the three-minute mark for a more driving section, the threat that it all might come apart is less prevalent. They groove an insistent riff for a few turns and set up an airy guitar solo that seems to half-arrive, and gradually make their way back to the initial ambient march, Staffel turning in another of the four-so-far impressive drum performances along the way. His streak continues through “Mouth of the Lion” (2:14), which seems to be Beyul’s most forceful moment in a traditionally metal sense until the raging “Species” ensues following and blows it and the rest of the album’s ferocity out of the water, until, having pushed it as far as they or really anyone else could take it, they drop back to let the sax-laden psychedelia of “Lotus Array” take hold and close out the album with one last linear build. Melodic vocals top with post-apocalyptic narrative, and there’s a sense of finality appropriate to the last track that remains as they launch into the final churning apex, gradually and patiently, around the halfway point. It’s not long until they’re running at full speed again, harkening back at 4:54 to the vocal standout of “On the Last Day” but using it differently as the chaos begins to come to a head. Even at its most brutal, “Lotus Array” doesn’t touch the same kind of extremity that “Species” harvested, but it’s enough to give Beyul the raging finish it has by now well earned. The range Yakuza travel on Beyul impresses. Where Of Seismic Consequence seemed to delight in its freedom, however, the band seem content here to expand on those ideas and refine their performances. I find it hard to fault them for that, since they remain a strikingly creative unit with a cohesive sound built from intricate arrangements and experimental turns, but knowing that they can write a song like “Man is Machine,” I’d be interested to hear them toy with traditional structures in a variety of musical contexts. Whether that song could be a precursor to such things, I don’t know – no point in speculating until it happens – but the increase in guest appearances suggests they’re reaching for something and I’m not entirely convinced they’ve found it yet. Perhaps that’s for the best. If they had found it, they might’ve stopped looking.

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