Right before Kylesa’s breakthrough fourth album Static Tensions was released, guitarist Phillip Cope was already thinking ahead. Although he and his bandmates had every right to rest on their laurels thanks to a record that was far and away the best thing the Savannah, Georgia band had ever put out, Cope was already preoccupied with ideas of how he could top that album. The fact was, after an extended formative period in which Kylesa had slowly found its own sound, Static Tensions hinted that the band was on the cusp of a significant creative streak, something which was not lost on the musicians. With a brand new record deal with burgeoning global metal giant Season of Mist and bent on making an even better album than before, the band wasted no time returning to the studio. So although this much-anticipated follow-up has come out in the following calendar year after Static Tensions, the fact is that the new record Spiral Shadow has been in the works for well over a year and a half.
Static Tensions had Kylesa raising the bar like many people had been hoping the band would do, but Spiral Shadow is the stronger of the two albums, although it isn’t the revelation the previous record was. Kylesa has completely come into its own, and the confidence the group exudes on the new disc is remarkable. Interestingly, there have been no real dramatic changes in their music, as songwriters Cope and guitarist Laura Pleasants continue to serve up an even balance of Southern sludge and psychedelic rock. However, the one big difference this time around is their willingness to open up their sound just enough to allow subtle influences outside of metal to creep into their music, which in turn makes their music sound all the more original, not to mention accessible.
If anything, for all the heavy riffs and hazy guitar jams, there’s also a strong undercurrent of early-‘90s indie rock running through the entire record. It’s a very appealing package, and anyone who obsessed over American indie 16, 20 years ago will be able to pinpoint various influences creeping in: Archers of Loaf, a little Grifters, some Silkworm, a tiny bit of Built to Spill, and, in the case of “Don’t Look Back”, a healthy dose of the Pixies. But don’t fret, “true” metal purists, those outside influences do not for a second come at the expense of the heaviness of the album. This is still one ferocious record. The riffs remain massive (“Tired Climb” is particularly explosive), and the band continues to utilize the dual drummer set-up to powerful effect. But if there’s one aspect that separates Spiral Shadow from the rest of the Kylesa discography, it’s the band’s newfound mastery of dynamics. It’s not a full-on blast of dense metal anymore; instead, the music breathes, the melodies are a lot stronger, and the songs are concise, never lingering longer than they have to. The improved songwriting in turn gives Pleasants the freedom to try new things as a singer, and she steals the show on “To Forget” and the moody title track, displaying more range than many of us thought she had.
In addition, Cope’s production is greatly improved. Whereas Static Tensions hard-panned the percussion to the left and right, leaving the guitars and vocals in a rather muddy clump in the middle, Cope creates much more space on Spiral Shadow, allowing the percussion, guitars, and vocals to interweave with surprising grace. As a result, it’s a tremendous “headphones” record, far from the usual merciless, over-compressed sonic assaults that pass for modern metal production these days. Kylesa is a resolutely old-fashioned band, and its dedication to everything from improving its songwriting to offering its fans a proper full album experience that includes clever art design (the artwork by Santos is stunning) is a big reason why the group is starting to distance itself from its metal peers more with each release. These perennial up-and-comers are now operating at an elite level. Welcome to the upper tier of American metal, kids.