The course of a band is never clearly defined at the beginning. Some groups arrive fully formed and hit a creative apex early on, only to decline—sometimes gradually, sometimes rapidly—because they are uncomfortable with the acclaim afforded for sounding a certain way and decide to experiment to their detriment. Then there are others; bands that arise from the murk and dirt with primal intent. Unrefined, their potential is hidden under a layer of pure animalism. At first they evolve insidiously only to take massive strides as the buds of confidence begins to blossoms. Both types of bands are interesting to watch, as in each instance, if the band is good, there will be moments of brilliance that makes their existence worthwhile. Whether you take Metallica’s god-like early LPs to the suicidal St. Anger, or the ongoing ascent of Baroness, creatively, there will be peaks and valleys; some more extreme than others.
The progression of Savannah, Georgia’s Kylesa has been similar to their fellow statesmen in Baroness, as Kylesa have climbed slowly out of the stifling swamps and, over time, have grown in stature. Kylesa’s development has been quite substantial if you compare the band’s early sludge-punk recordings to 2011’s Spiral Shadow. The former took Weedeater, Black Flag, Eyehategod and the Melvins as sonic signifiers, while the latter heaped post-punk and ‘90s alt-rock on the fiery sludge foundations that were laid during the band’s formative days. It looked as if Kylesa were set to would follow Spiral Shadow with a kaleidoscopic record akin to Baroness’s 2012 triumph, Yellow & Green. But, as Ultraviolet plays out and reveals itself, it becomes clear the band had a different idea of where they wanted the mood of this music to rest. The title itself is misleading; Ultraviolet is the darkest, most sombre and pensive record of Kylesa’s career. It’s soaked in melancholia and its gloom is startlingly when expectations of anthemic alt-rock being pounded into shape by wood-chippin’ duel drummers precede it. But, evidently, we should not be surprised by this turn, as we were given an indication of the band’s current mind-frame on last year’s compilation of re-recorded and unreleased material, From the Vaults, Vol. 1.
“End Truth” was the only new song included on From the Vaults, Vol. 1, and its cold post-punk was reminiscent of Joy Division; especially vocally. It also treaded the line of being slightly experimental while remaining accessible by emphasizing melodies, and the songs that standout on Ultraviolet are those that keep to this song-writing formula. These songs are far and few between however, with “Unspoken”, “Long Gone” and “Steady Breakdown” being the clear highlights. Pleasants’ catchy vocal melodies lead these three songs and the instrumentation—prominent bass-lines, hazy swirls of guitars, and duel drums heavy on accent—set a richly textured, intoxicating atmosphere. It is on these examples that Pleasants really shows how she has come into her own as a vocalist. Her soothing, sultry tones makes “Unspoken” breathe as the riffs enclose, and there is a dose of ‘90s Riot Grrrl angst in her delivery on the psychedelic alt. rock of “Steady Breakdown”; both of which work brilliantly and display real character. However, besides these tracks and the laid back indie rock of “Low Tide”, the rest of the songs that attempt this mood are passive at best. “Grounded” and “Vulture’s Landing” have some interesting blues riffs but the melodies are weak and drift away without a memory. And the final two tracks “Quicksand” and “Drifting” are both vocally and musically devoid of any real substance; just fading out without any fanfare.
In fact, with the exception of opener “Exhale”—which has some of the aggression of old found in its growling main riff and shouted vocal trade-offs—the album lacks real force. Heavier additions, “We’re Taking This” and “What Does It Take”, are not of the quality the band is known for. There is nothing wrong with dropping force and utilizing emotions outside of aggression, but only if the songs are strong enough to take this. There are moments when Kylesa seize control and the melodies strike a nerve and it works really well. The rest of the time, though, it’s as if Kylesa are unsure of what they want to be and are happy to languish in their own solemnity. This record may prove to be a turning point for the band, as trying to balance past and present and darken the mood on Ultraviolet has produced mixed results. Kylesa need to rectify the imbalance and emphasize both facets of their sound equally. It’s either that or make the full transition into the indie-gazers they so often revert to here and focus on that alone, or just return to their roots, write roaring riffs and allow those twin drummers to let loose and be heard instead of using them to accent atmosphere. Failure to pick a definitive path so may result in that dreaded creative decline, as this identity crisis has left this once radiant band in a precarious situation. Kylesa’s next album will be crucial to their future. The precipice looms and, for now, the band seems content to wallow close to the edge.