Brick Anchors in Wet Sand: Redefining Sludge with Kylesa

Static Tensions

Over the past few years, the state of Georgia has been quietly producing a steady supply of good metal acts, but despite the fact that whether or not there’s an actual community of bands, fans, and promoters creating a healthy environment for the development of the music is debatable (some musicians from the area will say outright that such a “scene” is nonexistent), with the caliber of bands coming from the American Southeast, you can’t blame people for wondering if there’s something in the water down there.

While such diverse bands as Mastodon, Baroness, Zoroaster, Withered, Daath, and veterans Harvey Milk have been leading the charge as of late, Savannah’s Kylesa has been plugging away since 2001, steadily building an audience by touring hard and gradually improving with each new record. After showing tremendous promise on 2006’s Time Will Fuse its Worth, the quintet is set to have a very big 2009, thanks to their shockingly good fourth album Static Tensions, and although it only hit stores in mid-March, the band is already starting to reap the benefits of the buzz the album is creating.

“There are a lot of really great bands coming from Georgia right now, there have been for years,” says guitarist/vocalist Phillip Cope, on the phone from a tour stop in Nashville. “More or less, we all know each other, so I guess to a certain degree there’s a scene to it. We just played in Savannah a couple days ago with Black Tusk and Skeletonwitch and a new local band called Tim Mclean, there were no posters up, it was pretty much word of mouth, and it was one of the best turnouts we’d had yet.

“We’ve always been the kind of band that plays a lot of old songs, we don’t ditch those out of our set, but we’ve been getting requests for a lot of the new ones,” he continues, his lazy Southern drawl unable to hide his incredulity. “It has been cool that the reviews have been so good, but the fans are what count in the long run, and everyone’s been really [positive], it’s the best response we’ve gotten from our fans from any record we’ve ever done. I’m really surprised, because usually every record we put out, somebody’s like, ‘I like the last one better,’ or whatever. And this one’s been pretty unanimous. Everybody’s been into it, which is kind of mind-blowing for us.”

It’s not like we were all blindsided by the new album, either, as Kylesa’s ascent has been far more gradual than, say, Mastodon or Baroness. Time Will Fuse its Worth boasted significant improvements on 2004’s To Walk a Middle Course, as the band, led by the shared lead vocals of founding guitarists Cope and Laura Pleasants and propelled by a unique two-drummer rhythm section, cleverly fused bruising sludge metal, crust punk, psychedelic rock, and honest-to-goodness melodies well enough to have many wondering if they could make an even bigger impression on the follow-up.

However, not many of us expected something on the level of Static Tensions, which grabs us on the cruising stoner-rock-goes-hardcore of “Scapegoat” and doesn’t let up for 40 riveting minutes. The improvements on the record are staggering: all ten songs are hook-laden, whether it’s strong melodic vocals or incessant riffs, the production is clean enough to make the songs a little more accessible, the compositions are far tighter and focused, and the dual drummer set-up is utilized to far greater effect than on the last album. Like God Forbid’s 2009 opus Earthsblood, this is a case of a hard-working, somewhat underrated band finally taking its sound to the next level.

As metal fans we can’t help but innately pinpoint influences that creep into new metal albums, but interestingly enough, as we’re noticing sounds like Kyuss creeping into “Perception”, Isis’s spacious post-metal in the vast opening salvos of “Running Red”, or the kudzu-thick Eyehategod riffery of “Nature’s Predators”, the influences Cope openly cops to are far more intriguing.

“When we were writing this album we were listening to a lot of Flower Travellin’ Band, and I think if you check out that album Satori, you’ll definitely hear that influence, no doubt,” he admits. “For me, I was going back to a lot of stuff like…I don’t want to call it grunge because it wasn’t called grunge at the time, but stuff like Nirvana’s first album, Mudhoney…If you listen to the song ‘Almost Lost’, that whole beginning had got that fuzzed-out guitar a little bit, and it’s a simple, kind of attack riff. It’s kind of not too far off from something like ‘Negative Creep’. For Laura, Bolt Thrower and Pink Floyd are always influences. If you listen to one of the riffs in ‘Running Red’, it’s got a bit of a Bolt Thrower swagger to it. Our influences are just more stylistically than necessarily like trying to copy a band’s riff — that would be insulting to do to a band — but just listening to the vibe and the style that a band has sometimes, maybe pick up a little bit from it.”

Rock bands with two drummers can be dicey in a live setting, as it’s not easy to find a perfect middle ground between rhythmic subtlety and percussive overkill, but it’s even more challenging for a producer to get that balance right in the studio, as Cope quickly found out when Kylesa decided to replace drummer Brandon Baltzley with the tandem of Carl McGinley and Jeff Porter prior to the recording of Time Will Fuse its Worth. “It’s a pain in the ass, it’s so hard,” he admits, bursting into exasperated laughter.

“Because there’s all these expectations from people, I’ll read all these reviews, I’ll read all these comments from bands, but we don’t know what the hell we’re doing. We’ve never done this before. It’s not like we have a lot of people to go after to see what they’ve done. It’s all pretty experimental at this point. There was definitely a lot of late nights, just going through the mixes, ‘Should we try it this way, or should we do it this way,’ listening to different things and taking some time and sitting on it and saying how we thought it sounded good or that we thought it sounded annoying.”

In retrospect, the drum sound of Time Will Fuse its Worth is decent enough, certainly adding to the band’s already heavy approach, but Static Tensions nails it. Through his trial-and-error approach, Cope happened upon a clever idea: to pan each drummer to separate channels. With McGinley and new partner Eric Hernandez hammering away in opposite speakers with the guitar, bass, and vocals concentrated in the center, the overall effect is extraordinary, whether the duo is operating in perfect synchronicity on “Scapegoat”, or taking on an inspired idea on “Said and Done”, where one drummer blasts away like Danny Herrera, while the other pounds beats slowly like Dale Crover. The drum performance on the album is physically punishing, but at the same time able to explore various intricacies and contrasts that one drummer (well, save for Mastodon’s Kali-armed Brann Dailor, perhaps) can never pull off. And best of all, it kicks major ass when heard on headphones.

“On this album we finally settled on hard-panning them for most of the album, but sometimes bringing them both in the middle, just depending on the part,” Cope explains. “When they’re hard-panned like that, they definitely demand your attention, especially if you’re listening through headphones or a really good stereo. Sometimes you don’t want the drums to be the focal point, even though they are a little interesting and different. Sometimes for a song the riff needs to be the focal point, or the vocals. I mean, yeah, we have two drummers, but I don’t think it would benefit an overall album to overdo it.”

One thing that Cope cannot underestimate is the addition of Hernandez, who has solidified Kylesa’s bottom end, as well as greatly improving the band’s overall chemistry. “It’s a much, much better vibe,” he says. “The two of them have gelled very well. Eric was originally just filling in on a tour, and it went so well, and he said he wanted to continue doing it, and we were definitely wanting him to continue.

Essential Extreme

Deathspell Omega, Veritas Diaboli Manet in Aeternum: Chaining the Katechon (AJNA)

Rating: 8

One of the finest acts in all of extreme metal returns with a shattering, 22 minute composition that’s every bit as absorbing as it is confounding. Off-kilter, free-form cadences interweave with swirling melodies that range from elegiac to atonal, grimly poetic lyrics are punctuated by bizarrely clean-sounding drums, not only reasserting their position at the pinnacle of black metal, but making the possibilities for their next full-length seem limitless.

Lord Mantis: Spawning the Nephilim (Seventh Rule)

Rating: 7

In a similar doom vein as labelmates Indian, but infused with the primitive black metal of Darkthrone and the atonality of Today is the Day, this debut helmed by ex-Nachtmystium guitarist Andrew Markuszewski glories in the filthier side of underground metal. Produced by the ever-reliable Sanford Parker and accompanied by some eye-popping fold-out artwork, it’s truly sick in every sense of the word.

Mumakil: Behold the Failure (Relapse)

Rating: 8

With the new albums by Napalm Death and Brutal Truth attracting all the attention, grindcore fans cannot afford to let Mumakil’s second album slip between the cracks. An absolutely incendiary grind exercise in the tradition of Nasum, there’s a lot to digest over the 27 tracks, but repeated listens will reveal that underneath the sonic violence lies an album that’s deceptively catchy and full of enough riffs to make Scott Hull envious.

It was actually pretty incredible, because when we recorded the album, we were originally going to do it all live with everybody in the room playing together, and we started doing it that way, and the two of them were just like, ‘No offense to the rest of you guys, but we think we could do it better ourselves, do it tighter.’ I don’t like using click tracks to record, I like getting some of that human error and energy in there, and so we just let those two play, and they just played right through the album. They knew their shit real well.”

Having two percussionists on drum kits is certainly nothing new in rock music, from the Grateful Dead, to the Allman Brothers, to .38 Special, to Adam and the Ants, to the Butthole Surfers, to present-day indie greats Caribou, but aside from Slipknot’s baseball-bats-on-garbage-cans shtick, the idea of multiple drummers in metal never became really prevalent until a few years ago. Hilariously enough, not long after Kylesa announced their two new drummers in early 2006, stoner legends the Melvins brought the talented duo Big Business into its fold, creating a two-drummer tandem of their own, and that revitalized band put the gimmick to excellent use on the album (A) Senile Animal.

“We’re friends with Big Business, and we did not know, and they didn’t know we were doing it either,” says Cope. “I actually was talking to Coady [Willis, drummer] about it, and when they told me, we were like, ‘Oh my god, no!’ [laughs] Because you know, that’s frightening, everyone’s going to think that we’re ripping them off. And I’m not sure if Dale [Crover, Melvins drummer] thought we were or not, it was hard to tell. He made some comments to us when we met him, but I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not. But we definitely didn’t rip them off, it was pure coincidence, and I know it was a coincidence on their part too.”

He adds, “It’s actually an idea we had from the beginning of the band. We had tried it when we were writing for the first album, and for me it was just wanting to make things heavier. I was like, ‘Well, we’re already doing the multiple amps, and a lot of the bands are starting to do that now, we have the multiple vocalists, what can we do to make things heavier? Let’s try two drums.’ But at the time it seemed too impossible to pull off. We tried working with two drummers, and they weren’t vibe-ing very well. So we ended up just keeping one and deciding that it might be too hard to pull off. And then when we lost Brandon after To Walk a Middle Course, we were trying drummers out and we just ended up with two that we liked, and we went, ‘Okay, why don’t we try this now?’ Everybody was like, ‘How are we gonna pull this off?’, and I was, ‘I have no idea. Let’s just jump in and find out.'”

It’s been a very busy time for Kylesa these days, as in the matter of a month they found themselves touring Japan, playing Atlanta’s massive single-day metal bacchanal Scion Rock Fest (according to Cope, the most well-run event he’s ever been a part of), and then playing showcases in front of cynical, twittering hipsters at South By Southwest. However, it’s going to get even nuttier, as the band is set to begin the highest-profile tour of their career, rounding out an incredible triple bill that includes headliners Mastodon and openers Intronaut. Definitely heady times for a band more accustomed to barely scraping by as an underground fave, but Cope and his bandmates remain well-grounded, very proud of how Static Tensions turned out, but already looking ahead to what they’re going to do next.

“I guess it doesn’t get said very much, but we’ve always been working on very small budgets for our albums,” he says. “The first album was done in, like, five days, the second one was a week and a half, about the same with the third. This is the first one where we’ve had a few weeks to work on it …There’s always going to be things that happen in the recording that are hard, but things went smooth enough to have an outcome so that I’m overall very happy. And I think all of us are, it’s definitely the happiest we’ve ever been. In the van we’re already talking about the next album, what we want to do next, what we want to do better. But then we’re always like that.”