Kylesa, Ultraviolet: Grounded in Drift

Almost nothing is certain, and when it comes to doubly-drummed Georgian progressive sludgers Kylesa, even less than that. Yet when it comes to approaching their sixth full-length and second for Season of Mist, the 11-track Ultraviolet — or really any new Kylesa album — the one thing the listener can be sure of going into it is that it will be a step beyond its predecessor. At this point, I don’t think the band would release a record that wasn’t. Ultraviolet‘s predecessor was 2010’s Spiral Shadow (review here), which changed their course from jagged, crunching sludge to a more smoothed out and progressive sound — a shift that they’d built toward on 2009’s Static Tensions (review here) in some ways but come nowhere near materializing as completely — and one that, as ever, divided their fanbase into those who could get on board and those who couldn’t. This seems to happen on a nearly per-album basis with the Savannah natives.

While we’re talking about expectation, I’d anticipate no less for Ultraviolet in the long run, but Kylesa have never had a problem picking up new fans along the way to fill the spots of those who couldn’t get past one period or another of their ongoing progression; they’ve maintained a reputation as a hard-touring band for years and rightly so. Rooted in the work of guitarists/vocalists Phillip Cope (also theremin and production) and Laura Pleasants, there are consistencies of sound to be heard between full-lengths, and sure enough between Spiral Shadow and Ultraviolet as well, but save for very few moments throughout the latest, the band would be all but unrecognizable to anyone who jumped from 2005’s To Walk a Middle Course or 2006’s Time Will Fuse its Worth right to it, and no doubt that’s the intent: Progress. Joined by drummers Carl McGinley and Eric Hernandez and bassist Chase Rudeseal (the latter of whom may or may not have actually played on the recording), Pleasants and Cope have never failed to draw a distinct line from one outing to the next, and though it’s an outgrowth of elements from Spiral Shadow like the pop hook of “Don’t Look Back” or the dreamy ambience underlying “To Forget,” that’s no less true of Ultraviolet than it has ever been.

Single-word titles on five of the 11 cuts on the 39-minute album — namely opening trio “Exhale,” “Unspoken,” “Grounded,” and closing duo “Quicksand” and “Drifting” — would seem to hint at some stripped-down sensibility or simplicity of approach, but the fact is Kylesa have never been so melodically switched on or engaged. Cope and Pleasants trade vocal parts immediately and effectively on the insistently-riffed “Exhale,” chugging distortion creating a jabbing tension topped by call and response shouts before a swirl takes hold that the drums(s) underscore with a thud less frantic than it has been in the past, but still indicative of two players at work. I suppose on a structural level, Ultraviolet‘s opening salvo is somewhat simplified, but the atmosphere becomes more complex as “Unspoken” opens with subdued guitar and a wash of effects, Cope coming in as the song kicks off with a semi-spoken line that Pleasants — whose ascent as a vocalist continues unabated — answers back with layered melodies. The most memorable stretches of Ultraviolet are still to come, but the momentum “Unspoken” helps create and its prog-toned guitar solo in the second half act as a precursor to some of the album’s most intriguing moments, giving way to the familiar winding structure of “Grounded”‘s central riff, readily accessible to anyone who’s followed the post-Mastodon course of Southern US heavy metal, Pleasants handling the verse and Cope taking what probably would be the ensuing chorus if it was ever repeated. Instead, they build on the instrumental for a bit and round out with layers of Pleasants‘ vocals, ending with just her voice to set up the shift to the more thickly toned and aggressive “We’re Taking This.”

Even here, on a track under three minutes long, Kylesa find room to work in a sense of ambience in a break around the midpoint topped by rhythmic shouts and surrounded on either side by a swirl not psychedelic but not not psychedelic either for how aggressive it is. They play off this back and forth, wasting time on neither side, but ultimately end angry, leaving little time to process the actual dynamic or efficiency of the track before the subsequent “Long Gone” begins a more melodic push with vocals from Pleasants while McGinley and Hernandez wait for their moment after the initial thrust has subsided. The two percussionists take a solo that I’m sure is more exciting in a live setting than it is on the album, and the vocals return over dreamy guitar and gradual solidification back to the earlier low-end push. Cope fronts the immediate rush of “What Does it Take,” the shortest track on Ultraviolet at 2:04, accompanied by a persistent lead guitar line high in the mix and Pleasants‘ backing vocals, a solo taking hold already more than halfway through before the punkish verse and chorus returns, ending cold and without any structural sense of extras despite a sound that’s still lush in a way Kylesa haven’t to date dared to be. “Steady Breakdown” is a highlight for its riff, bass work and laid back groove — moving smoothly into and out of a psychedelic break from and back to its landmark central figure — and for Cope‘s theremin making an appearance deep in the mix but effectively adding to the atmosphere nonetheless, and for the instrumental build at the end, hitting an apex just before the song ends and the New Wave-esque “Low Tide” emphasizes just how far Kylesa have come in establishing a melodic wash. Sludge by way of New Order? Maybe.

Especially placed after “Steady Breakdown,” however, “Low Tide” helps set up a flow for side B of Ultraviolet that carries through to the end of the album, even as “Vulture’s Landing” ups both the pace and the general activity level, Pleasants taking over from Cope‘s meandering to a more solidified push, upbeat and befitting a Torche comparison, despite a somewhat less bright-light-in-your-face mania than that band sometimes elicits. They hit the brakes in the middle third and make a solo half from notes, half from feedback, before Cope plants backing chants as a foundation for a final run through the chorus. The shorter “Quicksand” follows and oozes back into the Pleasants-fronted psych-prog of Ultraviolet‘s first side — comparable both in placement and mentality to “Long Gone” — but static noise (more theremin?) in the second half makes “Quicksand” feel like more than filler even as the 2:35 song ends abruptly to give over to “Drifting,” a final underpinning of the creative breadth of Kylesa circa 2013. Ambient guitar and bass drone out a lush intro, cutting at 1:22 to let the drums announce the subdued march of the first verse, Pleasants‘ vocals arriving almost immediately as a guiding force. Already a build has begun, but a break of electronic beats and return to the verse precede Ultraviolet‘s final rush, which when it arrives on the closer does so typified by start-stop riffing no less memorable than that of “Steady Breakdown,” but full of a kind of pop drama and thick, thick tonal fuzz. Already “Drifting” is the longest song on Ultraviolet at 5:26, rounding out with a last-minute swirl of noise, but if the band had decided to sustain that riff for another two or three minutes, I doubt anyone would’ve complained.

Still, the fact that they didn’t remains in line with Ultraviolet‘s overarching structural straightforwardness, put into balance with the lush tones and no-longer-nascent melodicism present within and here used as an essential building block of the band’s sound. As ever, Kylesa have pushed themselves further into their own processes, and their continued growth continues to produce exciting and increasingly engaging output. After more than a decade since their self-titled, sludge-caked debut, one has to wonder what it is they’re chasing and whether there’s a point at which they’ll settle into a niche they will have built for themselves over the course of these records, or if perhaps it’s the pursuit itself that is driving them, not some imaginary end point. Should that turn out to be the case, then Ultraviolet will be one more sizable footprint left behind on their path, wherever it might be leading.

Kylesa, “Steady Breakdown” from Ultraviolet

Kylesa on Thee Facebooks

Season of Mist

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One Response to “Kylesa, Ultraviolet: Grounded in Drift”

  1. C#standard says:

    Great review man. I’m excited to hear this, it took a while to warm up to Spiral Shadows but that’s now one of my favourite records. This sounds like its gonna be a rocker as well.

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