To millions of followers of Hindu and Buddhism, the term samsara is the endless cycle of birth, suffering, death, and rebirth, something which only the truly enlightened can ultimately transcend. Similarly, metal music has always had a cyclical quality, as many bands have been inspired by the seminal albums of the genre (Black Sabbath, Ride the Lightning, Through Silver in Blood), but few have actually managed to achieve that musical satori, that one epiphanical piece of work that not only stands out above the music of their peers, but also shakes the sound right down to its foundations. Instead, most just keep perpetuating the metal clichés, and while there’s often nothing wrong with that, that revolving door feeling does set in from time to time.
American metal might seem to be caught in one of those vicious circles these days, as unoriginal metalcore has become a major seller, spawning dozens of sound-alikes, but in actuality, the majority of bold metal music has come from the States, whether it’s the prog madness of Mastodon, the intricately insane Dillinger Escape Plan, the instrumental beauty of Pelican, or the kitchen-sink audacity of Between the Buried and Me. With their third album Samsara, Chicago quartet Yakuza look to stake their claim as yet another one of metal’s great young talents, and judging by the tunes, they’re well on their way.
If you want to be noticed, you’ve got to be original, and Yakuza certainly earns points for originality with their jazz-tinged take on modern heavy metal. Like Soulfly and Orphaned Land, the band delves into world music with the enthusiasm of a four year-old running through a music store for the first time, banging this, strumming that. But Yakuza’s proverbial ace up the sleeve is their inclusion of saxophone and clarinet. Blending electric and organic instrumentation is never easy for such extreme-leaning bands, but as Yakuza proved on their bold, eye-opening Way of the Dead four years ago, which prompted skeptics to wonder just how they’re going to market music like this, the band does have the ability to appeal to spin-kicking youngsters, post rock hipsters, and jazz lovin’ oldsters alike, if only they can maintain an adequate balance of the aggressive, the experimental, and the melodic throughout the course of an entire album.
The majority of Samsara consists of some of the most thrilling heavy music we’ll hear all year, but like an old car during a prairie winter, it takes a while to warm up. Perhaps the rather straightforward opening two tracks are the band’s way of easing us into the musical craziness, because neither song exactly blazes any new musical trails. After an overture of saxophone and tribal drumming, the furious “Cancer of Industry” gets down to some blue-collar hardcore, including some mosh pit-electrifying breakdowns, while the bizarre “Plecostomus” sounds equal parts Soundgarden and early Mastodon. While neither song is bad by any stretch, what we want to hear from Yakuza is the much more adventurous fare, and the largely instrumental “Monkeytail” has the band getting down to brass tacks, Lamont’s echoing tenor sax weaving in and out of a tasteful arrangement of lithe drumming by James Staffel and Eric Plonka’s wah-wah guitar, gradually building up to huge crescendos of power chords and hardcore screams.
The furious hardcore pace of “Dishonor” lasts only a couple of minutes before the song shifts abruptly into an atmospheric coda of guitar drones and cello, before metamorphosing into something as darkly beautiful as Tool would do. Atmosphere and raging chaos collide extremely well on “20 Bucks”, Lamont’s vocals sounding like a cross between Perry Farrell and Cedric Bixler-Zavala during the space rock verses, interrupted by Neurosis-like explosions of intricately syncopated noise, suddenly segueing into the simmering, Middle eastern-tinged psychedelic rock of “Exterminator”, which features not only Lamont’s best singing on the entire album, but a terrific free-form saxophone solo. Unlike Way of the Dead, which was loaded with everything from Tuvan throat singing to a massive 43-minute closing composition, there’s more restraint shown on Samsara, exemplified perfectly by the nine- minute closer “Back to the Mountain”, which has the quartet (along with Mastodon’s Troy Sanders on lead vocals) bringing in all their various influences and creating a taut, enthralling piece that never ventures toward self-indulgence, instead keeping us all on our collective toes, lulling us with ambient, slow jazz interludes, only to pull the rug out with massive refrains of distorted screams.
Although Samsara would have been a better album had the focus been more on the maniacal side of the band’s sound instead of the mechanical, Samsara is still an inspired, diverse, invigorating piece of work that will leave listeners wondering just what this highly talented band is capable of accomplishing next.